Grocery stores introduce much more than oatmeal, chicken, beans, chocolate donuts and soda to our homes. They also fill our trash cans with packaging: styrofoam trays that held meat, plastic-lined cartons of almond milk, bottles and jars, cereal-containing pouches within boxes, bags of chips.
Most of it never gets recycled. Instead, trucks ship it to landfills. Some of the packaging escapes the waste stream and defiles formerly pristine, natural streams, as well as the rest of Earth’s waterways and coasts: rivers, lakes, bays, oceans, estuaries, beaches and more. The problem goes far beyond the visual atrocities of plastic-littered waters and coasts. A study published yesterday by scholars at the University of California-Davis and Stanford University reviewed decades of scientific literature surrounding interactions between fish and plastic. The findings reveal widespread consumption of plastic by fish, and show how the problem continues to grow worse.
While it’s always been technically possible to reject packaging, it wasn’t easy. Few brick-and-mortar stores outside of food co-ops offered much in the way of bulk. Online shopping presented an over-abundance of bubble-wrap in addition to the containers in the boxes.
But thanks to the rise of zero-waste shopping options, no longer does a trip to the market automatically translate into pounds of tossed plastic.
Zero-waste grocery thrives in Boulder
My town of Boulder, CO supported a zero-waste place called Refill Revolution that I liked quite a bit, although most of the things for sale were home items, like bulk laundry detergent, rather than food. The spot closed during COVID.
At just about the same time as Refill’s exit, Nude Foods Market emerged. The operation, an online marketplace with home delivery (by bicycle) or pick-up, offers hundreds of foods and household items, all of them in reusable packaging, most of which are jars. Shopping at Nude Foods adds no packaging to the waste stream.
“I’ve been obsessed with waste for as long as I can remember,” says Nude Foods founder Verity Noble. “I stop people in supermarkets and say things like, `Excuse me, why are you bagging your bananas? They have skins.’ I often pretend that I’m taking a survey when I do this.”
Verity, a native of Norwich, England who moved to Boulder eight years ago, anticipated opening a brick-and-mortar shop, but COVID upended those plans.
“We thought, should we just wait this out? That was back when we thought COVID was going to be just a month or two,” says Verity. “We agreed to try online deliveries, did a pilot in June and launched in September.”
For now, she plans on sticking with the online store, even after we wave goodbye to COVID. The model is working.
To get started, she and Nude Foods three other founders — Jimmy Uvodich, Rachel Irons and Matt Arnold — took advantage of a kitchen commissary leased by one of the founders behind a Boulder hotel. The space, borne out of the pandemic, involved entrepreneurs starting new “ghost kitchens,” places where all food gets either delivered to diners or picked up.
The team worked with cooks in the kitchens to source food in bulk, and to have them contribute towards Nude Foods’ prepared meal offerings, things like curried butternut squash soup, sweet potato chili and kombucha. They got in touch with local farms, offering them a fresh outlet for their produce. And then they started stocking up on large quantities of bulk staples: rice, pasta, peanut butter, dried fruit, coffee, chips, dish soap and much more.
Five months after the grocery’s formal launch, in September, sales are rocketing. Verity, a sales and marketing specialist by training, planned on sales growth of about 10 percent a month. But Nude Foods is expanding by 10 percent a week. She hopes to open a Nude Foods in Denver during this year’s fourth quarter. The city already supports at least four zero-waste shops.
Brick-and-mortar + online zero-waste grocers blossoming
The ditch-the-packaging movement is having a moment. Waste-free stores now serve customers in cities and small towns across the country — this website offers a state-by-state listing of zero-waste shopping resources.
Online markets now routinely emerge. In September Berkeley, CA-based Zero Grocery raised $3 million in seed funding to expand, in addition to the $1.7 million it previously raised. The company delivers food packed in glass jars, boxes and other containers — but no plastic. Zero Grocery picks up jars and Zero bags when it delivers customers’ next shipment.
Just as Nude Foods experienced rapid growth during COVID, so did Zero Grocery, which saw revenues increase by 20 times since last February, according to the publication Grocery Dive. Zero waste is not responsible for all of the growth — market research firm Mercatus determined that online grocery sales vaulted from $1.2 billion in August of 2019 to $7.2 billion in June of 2020, driven largely by the pandemic. But interest in zero waste represents a portion of Zero Grocery’s growth.
Meanwhile, investors like Procter & Gamble and Nestlé recently backed startup Loop with $25 million. The company, launched as a pilot in the United States in May of 2019, enjoys partnerships with more than 80 brands, sells 400 products around the world and has over 100,000 subscribers. Brands are mainstream, like Clorox, Gillette and Tropicana, as well as more niche, such as spice company Burlap & Barrel, and Noice natural toothpaste.
With Loop, online customers buy a wide range of products — nut butters, dishwashing detergent, spices and much more — and receive them in reusable containers. Products get shipped in a reusable Loop tote, rather than boxes stuffed with packing material. Customers return the reusable containers with the arrival of their next shipment.
Nude Foods aims for 2021 expansions
Nude Foods isn’t yet issuing press releases about multi-million-dollar investments. For now, the staff consists of four founders and a fleet of volunteers who make bike deliveries and help clean and pack boxes. The store sells 200 items now, but expands by a few products every week. Most weeks, customers order about 120 different products from the store. Orders must be placed by Monday afternoon; deliveries and pick-ups are Wednesday. Given the market’s growth, Verity plans to soon add Friday to the delivery and pick-up schedule.
Produce and eggs reign. But kombucha sales are nearly as strong, while chips, tofu and the lentil soup — based on Verity’s recipe — sell in abundance every week.
Looking ahead, Verity says the team plans to expand the grocery’s prepared foods offerings. She envisions a list of at least 20 prepared dishes. More personal care items, like wooden toothbrushes, should soon dwell on the site, too.
She has two young kids, and a financial accounting company. Busy. But ever since watching the animated movie WALL-E, Verity has obsessed over the planet’s trash. WALL-E, short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Eath-class, is the last robot on Earth. He roams the planet working to clean it of its trash, one piece at a time.
Verity’s goal is less clean-up, and more prevention. Passion drives the business, and it carries through to the volunteers.
“We have one customer who comes and helps us clean up, just because she wants to,” says Verity. “She won’t take payment for the cleaning. She says she just wants to help.”
I can’t claim volunteer status. But I have supported Nude Foods with purchases, and will continue to shop there across 2021. Among other things, Annie and I savored the vegan Bolognese sauce with fresh, local pasta, all of it in jars. The kombucha was excellent.
Making shops like this work can’t be easy. Among many other things, it requires lots of time moving bulk items like coffee beans and dried garbanzo beans into mason jars, keeping track of jar returns, and coordinating deliveries by bike across a city of about 100,000.
But given Verity’s early triumphs, I’m hopeful we’ll encounter increasingly more zero-waste options in coming months and years.