Will Brooklyn Get Behind a Plastic-Free Grocery Store?

A retailer in the New York City borough hopes to offer consumers a packaging-free shopping experience.
(Illustration: Courtesy The Fillery/Kickstarter)
Mar 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Whole Foods, often hailed for being ahead of the curve in sustainability, came under siege in early March after an image posted on Twitter of individually boxed, peeled oranges for sale went viral. “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them,” wrote Twitter user Nathalie Gordon in the picture’s caption.

The company was quick to respond, tweeting: “Definitely our mistake. These have been pulled. We hear you, and we will leave them in their natural packaging: the peel.” But for the thousands of people who shared the image, the picture seemed to represent how out-of-control plastic packaging waste has become.

RELATED: Ocean Plastic Pollution Could Double in a Decade—but There’s a Solution

Brooklyn, New York, resident Sarah Metz is taking matters into her own hands by opening a waste- and packaging-free grocery store in her neighborhood. Metz, a full-time pediatric occupational therapist, lives alone and often finds herself cooking for one—something that’s often tough to do without generating plastic waste if she’s using goods purchased at one of the traditional grocery stores in her area.

“For years I’ve tried to reduce my waste because it feels like the right thing to do,” Metz told TakePart. “I like to cook, and after seeing what stores like this can offer, it just makes sense to start my own.”

Metz is calling her store The Fillery. As the name implies, it will allow shoppers to fill their own containers with various products from large bins, eliminating the need for store-provided plastic containers and bags. Metz is crowdfunding the idea—it quickly garnered support on Kickstarter, where it’s close to meeting its $15,000 target to secure a storefront in Brooklyn, furnish the space, and supply the first round of inventory.

Once the store is open, customers will be able to buy in bulk without the unnecessary amount of plastic that usually accompanies such purchases. But The Fillery won’t be able to satisfy every shopper’s needs. Instead, Metz said, the store will supply mostly dry goods that can last in large bins without decaying or bruising. She imagines customers browsing large containers of nuts, coffee, spices, and cereal, along with hundreds more options priced by weight, and filling their canisters with as much or as little as they want. The store will also offer fresh produce several days a week through a Community Supported Agriculture program, Metz said.

This shopping style caters to individuals cooking for one who are often left with waste from prepackaged grocery store items that they can’t finish. It will also help families who need to buy in large quantities and save a little money too, Metz explained.

“If you don’t need a five-pound bag of rye flour, you can buy just what you need for your recipe. That will reduce costs for some people, and that cost saving will be transferred onto the customer,” said Metz.

Metz engineered the idea for a zero-waste grocery store after learning that in the United States, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled each year. Americans throw away as much as 185 pounds of plastic annually per person, a number that is increasing each year, and much of which ends up in landfills or in the ocean. As a result, researchers from London’s Imperial College estimate that there are 15 to 51 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans.

RELATED: Anyone Can Make Healthy, Delicious Meals on a Food-Stamp Budget

Metz has a specific goal behind her “zero-waste” policy. “In my mind, zero waste means sending nothing to the landfill. Everything you purchase can actually be consumed or reused, or is biodegradable,” she said.

Original Unverpackt supermarket, Berlin.

(Photo: Courtesy The Fillery/Facebook)

Some grocery stores abroad are pioneering similar zero-waste efforts. Metz recently traveled to Europe and toured sustainable grocery stores in Berlin and Lille, France, that are already succeeding at eliminating plastic and food waste from their shelves. Although The Fillery likely won’t act as a shopper’s only stop for groceries, Metz is hoping the concept will inspire people to rely less on the “excess” found in items available at many large grocery chains.

There’s a health factor behind Metz’s plan too. She wants to encourage consumers to start cooking from scratch and thereby cook with fewer processed ingredients. Studies show that people often make healthier choices when they see exactly what goes into their food. The Fillery aims to be ingredients-focused rather than relying on precooked, prepackaged meals that line the shelves of many modern chains.

Original Unverpackt supermarket, Berlin. (Photo: Courtesy The Fillery/Facebook)

For those who don’t know what to do with the ingredients, The Fillery will offer cooking classes in a “learning space” at the back of the store, as well as online recipes for from-scratch treats using ingredients that are for sale, such as kabocha squash, olive oil, and brown butter chocolate cake. The store will also offer all-natural household cleaning products from local vendors.

When it will open depends on how soon a space can be acquired, Metz said. Meanwhile, the Kickstarter campaign closes April 1.