You have probably seen pictures of the incredible amount of plastic trash floating in our oceans and what this is doing to the animals living in the sea. Maybe you also know about the health risks that plasticizers and adhesives in water bottles, cheese packaging, and other wrappings of food impose on our bodies. Most of us would like to generate less waste but simply can’t find a way to do so, at least not without becoming a radical and spending a lot of time and energy on this issue. If you live in a country with waste separation for recycling, you probably know this scenario: the bin for plastics, composite material, cans etc. usually fills much quicker than the other trash bins. And this might even be the case if you have a certain awareness for waste reduction, buy fresh groceries, and don’t just live on frozen food, canned beer, and crisps. Most people do their grocery shopping on the way back home after work, in supermarkets, or smaller shops. This is exactly where the biggest part of our daily waste seems inevitable: everything is packed and wrapped in shiny, colorfully printed packaging. Salad, ginger, cookies, razorblades, and many other products are even double and triple-packaged. The perspective that some of this stuff (hopefully!) will be recycled later isn’t really helping us to feel better when we cram all the wrappings of our dinner ingredients in the trash bin, day by day. But there is hope! In the last years there are more and more shops that sell products without packaging in bulk.
Original Unverpackt (which means “Originally Unpackaged”) is one of the new stores that allow you to shop without bringing home a bunch of single-use containers and plastic bags that only harm the planet and clutter our bins. This little supermarket in Berlin’s colorful neigborhood of Kreuzberg sells a wide range of everyday products: dry foods like noodles, grains, nuts, spices, sweets etc. in big bins and glasses, liquids like oil, vinegar, soy sauce, wine, gin and vodka , and even cosmetics and cleaning products from big dispensers and barrels. Dairy products and locally produced tofu are provided in returnable glasses, as well as pesto, jam, beer, lemonade and many others. Furthermore you find vegetables, fruits, and bread, which in Germany is usually sold unpackaged anyway, but for which you normally get single use plastic or paper bags for free. In shops like Original Unverpackt you can either bring your own containers, bottles, jars and bags, or you can buy all of this for multiple use. I worked as the project coordinator and sustainability expert for Original Unverpackt during the opening period of the store in 2014 and thus had the chance to experience the overwhelming support and positive feedback from people of all ages and from all corners of the globe. In the first weeks after opening, the shop was constantly crowded with curious customers and international media teams. Tourists came visiting, as they had read about the shop in their home newspapers or seen us on their local TV station – and also influential politicians of the biggest German parties visited the shop with their own media teams for fancy pictures on their social media channels.
The concept of unpackaged shopping isn’t as innovative and new as it might seem to western Europeans nowadays. It simply is the way grocery shopping has been for centuries and it was only in the second half of the 20th century that pre-packaged products became the standard in food retailing. However, Original Unverpackt definitely hit the Zeitgeist with elegant design, a clever PR strategy and by putting into practice what so many people around the globe have been waiting for eagerly: to finally get rid of all this mostly useless, ugly, and manipulative packaging and to reduce waste and emissions in production and transportation–to be able to see, feel, and smell the food you are buying and to have the choice of exactly how much you want to buy. Furthermore the young founders of Original Unverpackt showed that if politics and economy aren’t willing or able to tackle the problem of packaging waste, good ideas and a strong belief can create alternatives to predominant means of consumption.
By now the shop has been open for almost one year and is doing pretty well. It has established a faithful crowd of regular customers and I can tell from my own experience that if you have tried this way of shopping once you hardly can go back to buying your groceries “the normal way”. If for some reason I have to buy my oatmeal or my pasta in a regular shop in plastic packaging, it almost hurts me physically. To be able to buy unpackaged products spontaneously (on the way home from work, between two appointments or before doing sports), I always have a cotton bag and some used paper bags in all the purses I use regularly, as well as in my computer bag or in my sports-bag. This is the basic equipment to avoid packaging waste every day. It doesn’t take much space in your bag and of course, can be used also in regular shops and at the market.Since the opening of Original Unverpackt, about five new unpackaged shops have opened in other German cities, and more are still to come. From Scandinavia to Southern Africa, from Australia to South America, bulk shopping is on the rise again and hopefully there will also be an unpackaged store near you soon. If you don’t yet have that opportunity in your neighborhood, you can reduce packaging waste by reusing the paper bags you get at the bakery, for example. Keep them in your bag for the next time you buy bread, a croissant or some fruits. And if you didn’t think about bringing your own bags to the supermarket (which of course often happens to me too), take only one bag for different fruits and vegetables, if possible paper instead of plastic. Get yourself a nice travel mug for your coffee to go, drink water from the tap and not from plastic bottles with adverse health risks, and have your ice cream in a cone instead of a paper cup. You will realize how easy it can be to avoid unnecessary packaging here and there– and once you start, you quickly will discover more and more options to produce less and less waste.
The basic equipment for minimizing your daily waste fits in every bag.