Taking the Rubbish out of Groceries: Zero Waste Supermarkets

WRITTEN BY Hannah Byrne

February 8, 2023

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Taking the Rubbish out of Groceries: Zero Waste Supermarkets

Hannah Byrne

8 Feb, 2023

You may have spotted zero waste supermarkets appearing on your daily commute, or popping up on your Instagram timeline, and found yourself wondering – what are they and how do they work? 

Although it may seem like a new concept, zero waste shopping is actually a hark back to the past. Before large supermarkets became the norm, people shopped frequently in small shops that sold loose groceries, milk in glass bottles and bread wrapped in brown paper. When the popularity of large supermarkets increased, so did the use of plastic to preserve and package food. The Environmental Protection Agency stated that in 2020 Ireland produced 306,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste. As this waste builds up in landfills, people have taken influence from the past to try and reduce consumption waste.

So, what actually is a zero waste supermarket?

A zero waste supermarket, which is sometimes known as a refill or a bulk food shop, is a shop which sells products with no excess or plastic packaging. The products are either sold loose or with paper/biodegradable packaging. Zero waste shops tend to stock dried goods such as pasta, rice, cereals, nuts, spices, tea and coffee. They also sell fruit, vegetables, and a variety of liquids from shampoo and laundry detergent to cooking oil. Each shop varies in what products they offer with some stores including hygiene products such as bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars.

How does it work?

Each shop has its own policies but in general, the premise is that customers bring their own containers to the shop and fill these with the products they wish to purchase. This means that customers can choose the exact quantity they want. Some shops do have biodegradable packaging such as brown paper bags available for customers who may have forgotten a container. Some stores also sell glass jars for customers who are starting out on their zero waste journey.

Do I need to have a certain type of container?

No – most of the shops state that the container must be clean and dry, but apart from that it can be any type of container that you have around the house be it glass, metal, hard plastic or anything with a lid. The loose goods will usually be priced per 100g, for example, 60c per 100g of white rice. The customer first weighs the container while it is empty, fills it to the desired amount and weighs it again to calculate the price. For liquids, some shops measure by the volume of the container instead of the weight of the liquid.

But, is it cheaper?

This varies from shop to shop, and depending on a person’s needs. For example, it may be more cost-effective for a smaller household that only needs small volumes of products. It can also eliminate food waste as you are choosing the quantity that you need, which saves money in the long run. One element that could make zero waste shopping more expensive is that often the fruit and vegetables sold are organic. These food products are grown without synthetic chemicals and are better for the environment, leading to price increases. 

Why should I shop zero waste?

Zero waste shopping does take more preparation than a shop in a large supermarket, but that shouldn’t be a turn-off. Gathering a supply of containers may take some preparation, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. Most people will be able to find containers in their house, perhaps an old coffee jar, or will be able to pick up containers for very low prices in their local charity shop. 

Zero waste shopping also often supports the local community with many shops sourcing fresh produce from local suppliers. They also enable bulk buying which can assist in cutting down carbon emissions from journeys to and from the supermarket if you travel by car.

On top of all of the environmental benefits, the experience of shopping zero waste can be very enjoyable. The stores often have an old-time feel with their DIY nature and a community atmosphere, which can lead to a fulfilling shopping experience.

Where can I find these shops?

Due to their increase in popularity, zero waste supermarkets are becoming more common in Ireland, popping up everywhere from big cities to small towns. A quick google will bring up a list of any nearby shops and what sort of products they stock, some shops have an emphasis on loose dried goods, others on organic products. Many stores are also offering home delivery options, allowing  customers to have their shopping delivered to their houses in eco-friendly packaging or containers that can be sent back to the store for reuse.

Small Changes wholefood store, Inchicore

So, why not give it a try? Find your local zero waste store and have a look around, and you may find that this environmentally friendly way of shopping is a perfect fit for you.


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