If you’re trying to integrate circularity into everyday habits, your grocery order is a good place to start. Despite reusable bags or shopping local, there’s a familiar roadblock: the pile of packaging left behind. From cellophane-wrapped vegetables, fruit in clamshell plastics, and styrofoam meat packaging, an average grocery order can feel like a never-ending strain of waste – and in fact, it comprises about one third of all household waste in Canada.  

What if you could make a trip to the store sustainable, from aisle to checkout? This is the idea behind zero-waste grocery stores, a trend gathering speed around the world. Canada alone has a variety, such as Ottawa’s NU Grocery, Toronto’s Unboxed Market, and Vancouver’s Nada Grocery. The proliferation of these stores has come with the heightened awareness about waste and the climate crisis, targeting consumers who want to live more sustainably.  

Though there’s some variance between stores, a zero-waste grocery operates by having customers bring in not just reusable bags, but containers to fill with items that would normally be in packaging, like cereal, beans, snack foods, and more. At NU Grocery, you weigh your empty container at a ‘taring station’ and write it down; at the checkout, that weight is deducted from the amount of product inside. Items like milk and yogurt are sold in glass containers, with a deposit. 

So, why haven’t these sustainable stores taken over? There are a number of reasons, and as you might expect, cost – both to the stores and consumers – is a major one. It’s difficult for smaller zero-waste stores to compete with the pricing large grocery chains have access to, meaning their selection is generally smaller, and pricier. Furthermore, preferred materials like glass or compostable paper tend to be more expensive to source (this is also why they’ve been slow to crop up in larger stores). 

There’s also the cost of buying a stock of reusable containers to shop with; while these don’t have to be expensive, that may be prohibitive for some consumers. With cost of living on the rise, groceries are where many people feel the hit, making it less likely that the average customer will choose a pricier zero-waste store. Aside from cost, shopping zero-waste tends to require more time and effort, mainly because you need to fill up each bulk item and weigh it, which is another potential deterrent.  

Finally, there are some important truths to acknowledge about food packaging. First, it can help preserve food – and in a place like Canada, where some fruits and vegetables travel thousands of miles from field to store, that’s important. Though packaging waste is certainly a problem, so is food waste; this blog post points out that emissions from food decomposition can sometimes be worse than the packaging itself.  

Second, important nutrition information and ingredient labeling comes on food packaging. This might not be a problem if you’re buying familiar items, but for new customers or those with allergies or dietary restrictions, information is important, even something as simple as an expiry date. 

While these are all valid reasons why zero-waste stores haven’t caught on widely, they do address the major problem of packaging waste. Although many grocery chains have taken steps to end the use of plastic bags, for example, we are a long way from more circularity in food packaging. Even if you aren’t able to do all of your shopping at a zero-waste store, the principles they employ and promote should encourage shoppers – and stores – to do better.