Living with Zero Waste: it’s sustainable, yes, but is it realistic?

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Sailor of Sailors for Sustainability and owner of Unverpackt

Taking your Tupperware container to the shops to buy exactly 300 grams of rice: it might seem like a hassle, but it’s sustainable. Obviously you cut back on packaging, but you’re also never left with unused ingredients after your meal. Some shops in Germany already make this possible, so we decided to try it. Welcome to our second blog, where we report on our first miles outside the Netherlands and share our experiences at our first actual package-free supermarket.

It takes some getting used to: going shopping with our own pots and jars. After a thorough search of our boat we put every empty container we find in the backpack. Ivar Smits Ivar Smits Skipper

In the fast lane

All of a sudden our boat picks up speed. The tide has turned and the current is propelling us upstream along the Elbe. With the wind from astern, we’re doing 9.5 knots – around 18 kilometres an hour. This might seem slow, but in our sailing boat it’s quite fast. We struggle to follow the line of green buoys marking the right-hand bank of the river mouth. We’re relieved that we succeed: traffic is heavy, with eight-storey cruise ships and fully loaded container vessels racing up behind us or coming at us head-on with their lights blazing. Almost blinded, we need to spot the green light on each successive buoy in the middle of the night. The lights dictate our bearing. We get a message on the VHF radio: the traffic controller, sitting in an office somewhere overseeing all the traffic on the Elbe, warns us to stay close to the green buoys. We thought we already were! At least he’s seen us, which is something of a relief.

A little while later we pass the locks that bring us onto the Kiel Canal. Here everything is tranquil, in contrast to the Elbe. The sun is just rising, and the traffic that uses this route to avoid sailing all the way around Denmark hasn’t got going yet. We moor the boat to gather our strength after a long and sleepless night. Just a few hours later we’re off again, since we have to complete the journey through the canal in daylight. The rest of the day we traverse a landscape reminiscent of the North Sea Canal back home. As evening falls – some sixty hours after we set sail from Harlingen – we reach our first foreign destination: Kiel.

Trendsetting Kiel: the first package-free shop

It takes some getting used to: going shopping with our own pots and jars. After a thorough search of our boat we put every empty container we find in the backpack. We arrive at Unverpackt and weigh each of our containers, scribbling the weights on the bottom with a marker pen. This way, when we get to the cash register the precise value can be deducted from the total weight of the filled containers. It will come in handy next time too: the containers have already been weighed, so we can skip this step.

We take a look at what’s for sale. We’re amazed that this tiny shop, only 80 m2, has everything. A sign has been put up over the vegetables, with drawings that show how the system works: weigh, fill, pay. We find transparent cylinders filled with nuts, pasta and sweets and larger vats holding detergent and shampoo where we’re inviting to fill our containers. Even the toilet rolls are stacked up individually on the shelves. Items that are more difficult to sell unpackaged, for example yoghurt and wine, come in returnable bottles.

Unverpackt founder Marie Delaperrière explains that she doesn’t sell goods in packaging that can only be used once. She buys in bulk to create as little packaging waste as possible on the procurement side. She also buys regional products wherever possible, to minimise the transport and so the impact on the environment. Another advantage is that buying precisely what you need means that less food goes to waste: an end to throwing out unwanted leftovers when you’ve finished cooking.

Hello product, goodbye brand label

Two and a half years ago Marie set a new trend in motion when she opened the first shop based on this principle. By now Germany boasts twenty-two Unverpackt shops. The Kiel outlet started with two hundred products, and now offers over six hundred. The shop sells everything that its customers might need in their everyday lives. Wherever possible the products are organic, local and socially responsible. A curious side-effect is that without packaging materials brands become less important. The shopper can see the food, can smell it and can often even touch it. This allows you to judge the quality for yourself.

Marie doesn’t offer ten different kinds of spaghetti to choose from: she’s already decided for you, and guarantees that the quality is good. Unverpackt’s second motto is lose, nachhaltig, gut: unpackaged, sustainable, good. We ask how the shop is doing. In the Netherlands two package-free shops, one in Groningen and one in Utrecht, went out of business in less than a year. This comes as a shock to Marie: she keeps tabs on Europe’s other package-free shops, but she hadn’t heard this news yet.

Changing habits

We’re curious to find out the secret of her success. Her shop is small and not in a prime location, Marie explains, and the initial product range was limited. ‘I advertised through word-of-mouth and gave presentations about life without packaging materials to raise awareness of my shop and the concept. At first my customer base grew slowly, because the concept requires people to change their habits, but steadily more people came. I carefully added to the shop, and reviewed every decision to see whether it was the right one. I took a strategic approach.’ Marie warns that countless other factors determine whether other shops based on the same concept are successful, such as location, how the shop is managed and its prices.

Zero Waste as a lifestyle

Marie’s shop isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. ‘You don’t rake in the money in the foodstuffs industry. I’m doing this to put something in motion, to do something meaningful. If that works, I’ll be happy.’ Her inspiration came from Béa Johnson of the US, who’s organised her entire life around the idea of Zero Waste. Even though she lives with her husband and two children, the amount of waste that Béa generates on an annual basis that can’t be recycled or composted fits in a litre-sized jar. She’s the guru of the Zero Waste movement. Living by the precepts of that movement means following five steps: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (in that order). So:

  1. avoid products and packaging materials that you don’t need; 
  2. use less of whatever you do need, for example by buying precise amounts; 
  3. replace single-use items by reusable items – this is where we can save the most energy and raw materials; 
  4. only what remains after that is recycled; 
  5. or composted.

Béa argues that this can result in a more meaningful way of living, where experiences become more important than possessions.

Do you have the courage to change?

This is very different from what we’re used to nowadays. Still, it’s an effective way to save the environment. Ultimately, what we do matters. Anyone who has the courage to change can make the world a better place. Some companies have picked up on this idea, as demonstrated by Marie’s Unverpackt shop in Kiel. Her message is this: ‘Small seeds can grow into trees and forests. Don’t complain and wait for someone else to act: take the initiative yourself. You might start a whole new movement.’

She’s convinced us, and we decide to take on the challenge on our boat, where we don’t have much room for waste anyway. Whenever we open our Tupperware containers for muesli, couscous or peanuts from Marie’s shop it makes us happy. It’s not impossible to reduce the waste mountain: we just have to become more aware and be better prepared when we do our shopping.

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