Can Zero Waste Grocery Stores Fix the Country’s Garbage Problem?

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Zero waste grocery stores

The United States has a garbage problem. According to the USDA, it’s estimated that between 30-40% of the food supply goes to waste every year, with 31% lost at the retail and consumer levels. In 2010, this was the equivalent of $161 billion and about 133 billion pounds of food.

Wasted food doesn’t just mean wasted money for individuals and grocery stores; food waste also has a far-reaching impact on the environment. Food production, preparation, transportation, storage, and disposal are all labor- and energy-intensive processes that result in a huge strain on natural resources and the U.S. workforce as a whole. As this wasted food decomposes in landfills, it releases large amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere.

In addition to causing environmental damage, wasted food also has serious ethical implications. In 2017, the USDA conducted a study to investigate household food security in the United States. The study estimated that 11.8% of households — approximately 15 million households — had low to very low food security. Instead of being used to feed hungry people, much of the food in the U.S. ends up in landfills.

On top of the food waste problem is the pervasive packaging problem. Many food products are packaged in single-use containers, some of which are recycled but many of which are not. According to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 77.9 million tons of packaging and containers were sent to municipal landfills in 2015, accounting for 29.7% of generated waste. Beyond the landfill, packaging waste is also ending up in the oceans in massive quantities, affecting marine ecosystems. 

The Rise of the Zero Waste Grocery Store

While many companies are turning to more sustainable packaging options, the vast majority of food and packaging waste is happening at the retail and consumer levels. As consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs become increasingly aware of the impact that food and packaging waste have on both the environment and the global human population, there is a growing movement toward more sustainable practices.

Enter the zero waste grocery store movement.

Focused on the tenants of reducing, reusing, recovering, and recycling, zero waste business models take a sustainability-minded approach to waste management. The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) defines the approach as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning, and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

Zero waste grocery stores are now starting to pop up all over the country. Even some large grocery chains, including Wegmans and Kroger, have started to incorporate zero waste philosophies into their sustainability initiatives. Instead of selling prepackaged foods, these stores instead sell bulk foods such as grains, nuts, spices, oils, and beans without packaging. Customers can come in with their own reusable containers and fill them up with the amount needed. Not only does this take packaging out of the equation, but it also helps to avoid food waste.

The Challenges of Zero Waste

Although zero waste grocery stores are becoming increasingly popular, they’re not without their challenges. On the retail level, one of the main obstacles to achieving success with zero waste grocery stores is that they rely on consumers to change their shopping habits.

While many consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with how waste affects the planet, changing life-long, ingrained habits is easier said than done. Traditional grocery stores and supermarkets offer more convenience and variety, and zero waste shopping requires more planning and forethought.

“In order for the zero waste grocery store to be successful, it is going to need to find the middle ground between being eco-conscious and convenient,” says Jenna Coleman, founder of Particular Pantry, a website dedicated to educating consumers on grocery shopping trends and options. For example, Coleman told Thomas Insights she believes stores “that combine the zero waste concept with the convenience of grocery delivery are going to be the first to prove a sustainable business model in this sector.”

Zero waste grocery stores must also contend with waste generated by their own supply chain and logistics practices. “We currently operate within a linear economy, which means zero waste is never truly zero; we can reduce waste, but until we operate in a circular economy, that’s impossible,” Polly Barks, a zero waste expert and writer of the zero waste blog Green Indy, told Thomas Insights.

“Zero waste grocery stores are an important step, but many fail to recognize that the experience isn’t zero,” she continued. "We’re just not seeing the waste upstream. For example, most zero waste grocery stores still get large orders wrapped in plastic, and consumers fail to take into account the waste in regards to water usage as their food is grown or CO2 emissions as their food is transported to the store.”

Although zero waste methods are increasingly shifting consumer habits and grocery retail practices, the industry is far from being able to switch to 100% package-free shopping. It may be a while before a truly sustainable zero waste grocery store business model emerges as a widespread option. 

As these practices and dialogues become more widespread, retailers and consumers alike will be better equipped to tackle food and packaging waste management problems.

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