Package-Free Grocery Stores and the Environment

In August, the first grocery store in the USA to sell mainly package-free goods will open in Austin, Texas. The store’s name is in.gredients. The move toward package-free food shopping has to do with the fact that packaging is expensive, wasteful and not exactly sustainable.

Why Package-Free?

Packaging, depending on the type of container, can amount to anywhere from eight percent to fifty percent of the retail value of a product. Eliminating packaging could greatly reduce costs and make it easier for those on a budget to access whole and organic foods. It is also better for the environment to reuse containers than it is to recycle them.
The process of taking an item from the used stage to becoming another finished product is often more expensive in terms of money and environmental impact than making a new item from raw materials. Reusing is as simple as cleansing items and using them again.

How Does the Package-Free System Work?

The idea is to move back toward the style of shopping that people would have done at a general store prior to the prevalence of boxed foods. The difference is that customers will first have their own containers weighed by employees. The containers will be labeled with a permanent label that shows the weight of the container. Container weight is referred to as “tare weight.”
The idea that the savings from the lack of packaging would be lost because additional employees would have to be on hand to fill the containers is negated by the fact that customers will fill their own. Though there will be no extra costs involved with that, there have been some concerns about cross-contamination.
The in.gredients FAQ says that they plan on washing tongs and scoops frequently throughout a business day and that they will do their best to ensure customer containers are clean before allowing them near the food. To help cut down on waste when a bin is deemed as contaminated or potentially contaminated, bins will be smaller than those seen at bulk food stores.

Is it Really Package-Free?

It should be called “mostly package-free,” rather than just package-free. The store will have some items that will come in packages that are reusable, recyclable or compostable to ensure the utmost in food safety. These items will include fresh meat, deli items and pre-made foods such as bakery items. If customers don’t have their own containers to fill, the store will provide them.

Is the Package-Free Model the Way of the Future?

The package-free model is largely similar to the bulk foods model used by some grocery stores already. The difference is that the bulk foods model is done by providing customers with plastic containers, plastic bags and paper bags to consumers for filling.
The cross-contamination worry is a valid one. It may be more viable for a package-free store such as in.gredients to provide customers with the option of using compostable containers or having their own containers run through an industrial dishwasher on site to ensure they are clean and sterile before being allowed near the foods. After all, some contaminants can’t be seen by the human eye.
While mostly sustainable, the package-free model will have to become more convenient for consumers. They don’t tend to use bulk options because it’s more convenient to grab the packaged option. Make it convenient and ensure containers are clean and it could very well become a more common model.
This article was written by Nathalie Moreno on behalf of Alternate Energy, a Hawaiian solar installer.