The retailers making food waste history

According to Fight Food Waste, one-third of the world’s food is wasted. A 2018 Guardian UK article notes the grocery retail sector accounts for more than 40 per cent of all plastic packaging, while US CNBC article stated that 23 per cent of landfill waste comes from containers and packaging.

The first zero-waste bulk food stores with shoppers bringing their own reusable containers to refill from bulk containers started to take off in Europe in the late noughties and since then, they’ve appeared all over the world. The UK alone is estimated to have nearly 200 such stores. In the US, examples include Live Zero in California and the Filling Station in New York City, while Hong Kong has two Edgar bulk food outlets.

In Australia, there’s the Wasteless Pantry in WA and The Source Bulk Foods, which began in 2010, started franchising in 2014 and now has more than 50 stores across Australia and NZ and recently launched in the UK. The Source is also located in the UK and Singapore.

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Supermarkets join the bandwagon 

In February 2018, Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza launched what was dubbed as the world’s first plastic-free aisle at one of its Amsterdam stores. The aisle features more than 700 plastic-free products often using biodegradable packaging, spanning meat, rice, snacks, fresh fruit, vegetables and more. The products are not more expensive than plastic-wrapped goods. Since the roll-out, plastic-free products are now available at all of Ekoplaza’s stores.

In the UK, Morrisons trialled a move from plastic bags to paper, with an aim that by 2025 all its own-brand plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable. Marks & Spencer has also run trials to “remove packaging without affecting food quality and freshness”.

US grocery store Kroger announced a plan last year to eliminate all food waste in its stores and across the company by 2025. Kroger is considering automating its in-store ordering systems across key departments to reduce over-ordering of highly perishable items. It has just introduced “ugly vegetables” (imperfect produce) which it plans to roll out to all stores  – something Australia’s Harris Farm has been doing for years and Woolworths just introduced.

Most recently, in June this year the UK’s Waitrose transformed its Botley Road shop in Oxford, took hundreds of products out of their packaging and began trialling a bulk foods department, with refillable options for everything from wine and beer to cereals, coffees and cleaning products.

As part of the Waitrose ‘Unpacked’ campaign, the retailer is trialling several different concepts, including dedicated refillable zones and the UK’s first supermarket frozen ‘pick and mix’ with mango, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, raspberries and pineapple. Meanwhile, customers can grind one of four coffees in store and shoppers can borrow a box from store to shop with and take home before returning on their next visit.

“We are determined to build on the work we’ve already done to reduce packaging – and this test will take our efforts to a whole new level as we help the growing number of customers who want to shop in a more sustainable way,” said head of CSR for Waitrose & Partners, Tor Harris.

“This test has huge potential to shape how people might shop with us in the future so it will be fascinating to see which concepts our customers have an appetite for. We know we’re not perfect and have more to do, but we believe this is an innovative way to achieve something different.”

Growth in online

Online zero-waste retail is a growing category. The Sydney-based, female-founded Clean Collective bills itself as “natural, organic, zero-waste products & information without the greenwashing”.  It carries beauty, bathroom, cleaning, home and “out & about” categories. Launched in 2017, it was shortlisted for the 2019 Telstra Business Awards.

A zero-waste online shopping platform called Loop has partnered with globals including Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and Coca-Cola to offer branded goods in reusable containers. Products arrive in a reusable box. Emptied product containers are put back out for pickup. Loop collects, washes and refills them for reuse. The service is due to launch in Paris, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the next few months, with delivery for London via Tesco planned for later this year, and Tokyo in 2020.

Sydney-based online business Flora & Fauna, which launched just a few years ago and has since won numerous major accolades, including a World Retail Congress Award, offers customers zero-waste options and has a focus on supporting customers through their sustainability journey, wherever they may be. The retailer recently opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in Sydney, which also offers bulk refill and acts as a recycling collection point. 

Challenges: The shoppers and retail systems 

Zero-waste shops, particularly bulk-food stores, could be viewed as a return to the days of grocers decanting products from large containers, while environmentally-conscious shoppers appreciate the healthy, local, community-based, ethical sourcing aspects of the business. 

Some consumers also enjoy the fact that they save money at the stores, given they only buy the amount of product they need and they aren’t wasting food. Others also like the experiential aspects of grinding your own coffee or nuts for nut butter.

But for some, weighing your own food and manually filling up your own container is time-consuming and inconvenient, in addition to actually remembering to bring your own jars and bags. Case in point: The outcry in Australia with the introduction of the plastic bag ban. Clearly, a shift in consumer thinking and behaviour is required. 

It’s proving particularly challenging in the convenience-obsessed US, where some states are enacting “ban the ban” laws, which forbid cities from passing anti-plastic bag laws.

From a systems point of view, no packaging means no shelf-stable food. Inventory needs to be moved quickly before it spoils, which leads to food waste. On the supply side, reducing packaging can be challenging, as food and other goods need to be shipped in bags and boxes.

The future outlook 

Despite the consumer and commercial challenges, there is recognition by governments and authorities globally of the need for waste reduction. Regulations should accelerate the adoption of reduced-waste operations throughout the supply chain. 

The European Parliament’s ban on single-use plastics in the EU takes effect in 2021. The UK Prime Minister’s 25-year environmental plan, resulting in the UK Plastics Pact that most supermarkets have signed up to, commits them to eliminating “unnecessary single-use plastics” by 2025 and involves plastic-free aisles and taxes on single-use containers.

In Australia, David Jones and Country Road Group became the latest members of the Collective Action Group (CAG), working towards the National Packaging Targets, which the Australian government set in 2018. The targets stipulate that all packaging be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025; 70 per cent of plastic be recycled or composted; and all packaging contain an average recycled content of 30 per cent.

From a consumer standpoint, the scale of the zero-waste movement is evident from the large number of books, magazines and Facebook groups devoted to the topic and television programs such as the ABC’s War on Waste. There are online directories to find your nearest zero-waste store from Manchester to Melbourne, and directories for compost dropoff sites.

Ultimately, zero-waste stores will continue to grow through a combination of links to authenticity and the regulatory push and consumer pull for companies and individuals to do the right thing for the planet. Even if some consumers harrumph and drag their heels.

Norrelle Goldring has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer strategy, marketing and research, working with global retailers, manufacturers and consulting houses. Contact: 0411735190 or norrellegoldring@hotmail.com

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