Sick of plastic packaging? There’s a shop for that
In the war against plastic, small battles can be won at the food and produce shelves
Ken Kinsella, owner of The Source Bulk Foods in Rathmines, Dublin 6. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
My sunflower seeds are labelled with a piece of tape with 666 in wobbly handwriting. This is for the cashier to tell her that the glass jar weighs 666g when empty. It’s been filled with several scoops from a lidded box in a zen calm, bright shop and will be unpacked straight into the cupboard where it will wear its satanic weight with pride.
There is something boy scout-y about embarking on a grocery trip with a mission to avoid packaging. It requires a packed rucksack with clean glass jars and the last of the cloth bags, the rest of which have disappeared, no doubt to turn up when they’re not needed.
I am well on my way to earning my zero packaging preparedness badge as I browse the shop, which sells four kinds of salt and toothpaste in tablet form. Once I’ve figured out the system it becomes oddly satisfying. It seems that scooping pumpkin seeds into a jar and filling a glass bottle with kombucha from a tap count as kicks for a middle-aged woman in a pandemic.
It’s all going well when suddenly the bottom of a brown paper bag splits, cascading lentils to the floor around my feet, leaving an incriminating outline of my shoes in tiny black pellets when I step out of the way.
The young woman in The Source Bulk Foods shop just off the main drag in Rathmines in Dublin is lovely about the mess. The owner dropped 10 litres of olive oil on the floor before they opened, she tells me. That was tougher to clean up.
Kinsella believes there will be an aisle like his shop in every supermarket in the future
Ken Kinsella is the man behind the oil spill. He sold a chain of juice bars he set up in Belgium in 2016 and wanted to return to Ireland. When he walked into a Source Bulk Foods shop in London, “within about two minutes” decided he wanted to bring a branch of the Australian franchise to Dublin. They opened in December 2019. “The first reaction we got was people saying, ‘where have you been? I’m sick of all this packaging filling up my bin.’”
Kinsella believes there will be an aisle like his shop in every supermarket in the future. His niche is going to become more mainstream, but have Covid fears put customers off? “Some people have mentioned it to us. I’ve had conversations with customers. They learned from me and I learned from them.”
But no one handles the food, he says. Customers are asked to sanitise their hands when they arrive. Scoops are used and everything is under a lid. “There’s no evidence that this is a dangerous concept.”
He had his busiest month in May after putting together an online shop almost overnight in response to the first lockdown. “I spent all day long driving around the city making deliveries.”
Amy van den Broek from the Dublin Food Co-op visited shops in Germany to research the zero-packaging systems for the Dublin shop back in 2016. Growing up in a small village in the Netherlands, van den Broek views the slew of packaged food as a recent thing in our lives. No fruits or vegetables were pre-packed in the small greengrocer shops she knew as a child. The butchers and fish shops and cheese shops wrapped portions rather than sold them pre-packaged.
The Dublin Food Co-op started selling food from containers but found these took up a lot of space. They invested in a set of gravity bins on shelves where customers pull a lever and fill bags or jars. They now have more than 120 products sold without packaging.
Similar to Kinsella’s shop, they haven’t seen any reduction in customers because of concerns around Covid. Customers weigh their jars if they bring them and write the weight on the bottom. Sometimes educated guesses are needed, especially if someone half-fills a shampoo bottle.
'Can we stop feeding corn to cows and make plastic out of it?'
“You get much better at meal planning. With children it’s tricky for me. I’ve taken home a kilo of red kidney beans. Other people are very good at taking what they need.”
Even with the wide array of products they stock, she believes it would be impossible to feed a family with no food packaging. As someone in the retail business, she knows plastic packaging has its uses. For coeliacs or anyone with other serious allergies it can be the safest way to interact with food.
“But we can use it more thoughtfully and we can make it from vegetables. In my late teens or early 20s I got a pen made out of corn. It had a little picture of a corn cob on it. I remember thinking, can we stop feeding corn to cows and make plastic out of it?”
Mindy O’Brien has a delivery for the five supermarket giants in Ireland this month. The co-ordinator of Voice (Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment) launched a #sickofplastic campaign with Friends of the Earth in 2018.
This year they printed thousands of postcards. In the Irish Times cartoonist Martyn Turner’s work, fish line up one behind the other, jaws wide ready to chomp, with the final and biggest predator a plastic bag. The postcard campaign means customers can ask the main food retailers to tackle food packaging with real purpose.
O’Brien worries that pandemic fears are unleashing a tsunami of single-use plastic and packaging onto the world
“There’s a lot of nibbling around the edges,” O’Brien says, “a lot of pledges... We need more systemic change. People are sick of plastics and are looking for alternatives.”
At 61 kilos of plastic packaging waste per person, Irish use of plastic is the highest in Europe. Less than a fifth of that will be recycled.
O’Brien will be personally delivering the postcards to the headquarters of Lidl, Aldi, Supervalu, Dunnes and Tesco this month. They ask retailers to price loose items competitively compared with packaged ones, make their own-brand packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, ensure suppliers use less plastic, allow customers to use their own containers, supply dry goods in bulk and eliminate plastic bags for loose produce and bread.
O’Brien believes the rise in supermarket deliveries prompted by Covid creates real opportunities to mainstream low- or zero-packaging options. Supermarkets can deliver foods in reusable containers.
In the UK, Tesco has partnered with Loop and major brands to deliver foods in durable, reusable containers, which are returned in a zipped food courier-style tote bag, cleaned and reused.
On the flipside, O’Brien worries that pandemic fears are unleashing a tsunami of single-use plastic and packaging onto the world. A recent Reuters report found that oil and gas companies plan to invest heavily in plastics. In their own 2020 pivot, these giants are eyeing up plastic as a new use for fossil fuels with the switch to renewables for transport.
Retailers have told O’Brien that glass bottles have a bigger carbon footprint than Tetrapaks or plastic containers. “Yes, but not if the glass bottle is washed and reused 40 times,” she counters. This could create jobs to allow for the reuse of glass bottles multiple times. At the moment a large proportion of recycled glass is ground up to go into the making of new roads.
Her local Supervalu used to let her use her own container for meat, 'but then they said no because of health and safety'
Keep cups went from being the must-have accessory to a no-go until coffee shops created the contactless coffee, O’Brien says. “You put your keep cup on a tray, push the tray over to the barista, they fill it and push the tray back to you. It’s easy.”
Compostable coffee cups are the not the answer, she says, because they are rarely composted. And some of the waterproof coating in cardboard food packaging can contain PFAs – the “forever chemicals” used in Teflon coatings, and the subject of a recent film, Dark Waters.
“Right now if you go to a supermarket and look at a bag of carrots versus the loose carrots, the loose carrots are more expensive per kilo,” O’Brien says. In Mediterranean countries there is a culture of zero packaging on fruits and vegetables.
Supermarket executives have told O’Brien that if they don’t package fruits and vegetables, customers pick the best and leave the duds for the supermarket to deal with, which causes food waste. Instead, O’Brien believes the food waste is being sent home with the customers in those carrots that mulch down before they can be eaten.
“When I go to my butcher I bring my own container. It’s not a problem, same with the fishmonger. If I forget my container they’ll wrap it for me in paper.” Her local Supervalu used to let her use her own container for meat, “but then they said no because of health and safety.” She uses her local shops and they are happy to facilitate her, “maybe because I’m a pain in the ass.”
O’Brien wants to see the burden taken off the consumer, the small army of pains-in-the-asses and the boy-scout brigade with rucksacks of empty containers. Policy shifts are needed to “show the direction, set targets and have tax incentives and some financial assistance”.
Micro breweries could all adopt the same bottle shape and just vary the labels so bottles could be standardised across the sector. Above all, it has to be affordable to consumers.
Back at Kinsella’s shop in Rathmines, I notice the only man to come in during my lengthy visit has been a delivery man. Has Kinsella noticed a gender bias for this kind of shopping? He has. It’s 80 per cent women, and Kinsella doesn’t believe that’s because women do the shopping.
“Go into Dunnes and you’ll see a lot of male customers. I never realised how female-orientated this niche was.”
#sickofplastic postcards can be signed online actionnetwork.org/petitions/sick-of-plastic-postcard