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Zero waste by post: Are mail order groceries the answer to cutting out plastic?

I'm absolutely 100 percent behind the concept of zero waste - I think it's smart and entirely necessary to answer all sorts of environmental challenges. I'm nowhere near achieving zero waste, but I'm actively working towards reducing the waste - particularly the plastic waste - I produce.

Most of that plastic waste is related to groceries, so I'm always looking for ways to shop without packaging. I've written before about how much I love Hetu, the zero waste shop in Clapham Junction, and I get down there whenever I can. At Hetu, you can take in your own containers, fill them up with great things, as much or as little as you like. Sadly for me, Hetu is upwards a 45 minute journey away, so I can't just pop in to pick up some lentils whenever I run out. Even more sadly for me, Hetu is pretty much one of the only zero waste shops in London, and definitely the nearest one to me. 
So, I've been looking at different ways to shop zero waste. I've bought a few things from both the Zero Waste Shop and the Zero Waste Club, and while neither are what true afficianados would call zero waste - there's packaging involved, albeit recyclable cardboard - they're the closest to zero waste I can get right now. 
Zero Waste Club has been consistently expanding its range of late: it started with just selling a handful of goodies including bamboo toothbrushes, and now it stocks a range of groceries, from tea to seaweed. 

imageGiven as the chances of me getting down to Hetu are almost zero in the next couple of weeks, I thought I'd give zero waste grocery shopping online a go. 
Zero Waste Club's range is pretty comprehensive, and I was able to stock up on everything I need: I was particularly chuffed to be able to pick up coffee, as it seems to be one of the hardest things to find without non-recyclable packaging. There's also a nice range of nuts, seeds, pulse, grains, and more. I'd love to see them expand their lentil section, with some green, brown, and yellow varieties. At the moment, there's only red. I ended up buying a kilo, before I discovered I had another kilo in the cupboard from my last Hetu shopping trip. Note to self: eat more damn lentils.

As well as your standard-issue storecupboard staples, Zero Waste Club has some extra fun things. Nori seaweed! Nutritional yeast! Green tea! Vegan strawberry jelly! It's just the sort of interesting range that can show that being vegan and zero waste doesn't mean being dull (and I'll arm wrestle anyone that says otherwise). 

One downside of bulk buying (bear with me) zero-waste is the bulk element. Most of the Zero Waste Club's groceries come in huge quantities: 1kg, 500g, or 100g. While I'll definitely get through 1kg of rice (and red split lentils... eventually...) but 100g of oregano? That'll be hanging around in the kitchen for a while. Side note: if anyone knows recipes that use industrial quantities of oregano, hit me up.

The other problem is the choice of packaging. Obviously, true zero wasters will be tutting at the idea that anything 'zero waste' would have any packaging at all, which is fair enough. I'd love it to have none too, but this is the best I can do at the moment. Half of the things I bought from Zero Waste Club came in brown paper bags, which are recyclable, and half came in Natureflex bags (which do look freakily like plastic!). Natureflex is, apparently, made of cellulose and entirely compostable. Which is great, if you have a garden or a compost heap, or similar. For people in second floor flats in big cities, like little me, then it'll have to go straight into the bin. Which is kind of not what I was hoping to achieve with zero waste shopping...

Given a choice, I'd go to a zero waste shop, fill up my jars and go home, every time. When that's not an option, zero waste shopping online is an imperfect alternative. Zero waste feels like it's a relatively new concept in retail terms, so I'm hopeful we'll see not only online shops tackling these sort of wrinkles, but more zero waste shops springing up across the country. Vive la revolution, vive la zero waste!

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2 comments

  1. I keep thinking that changing our use of plastic needs to be systematic but that if individuals show they want it (like not giving away plastic bags in shops) then it will start to change. I say this as i get a bit frustrated that our farmers market wants to be zero waste but quite a lot still come in paper bags that I need to recycle and there is no recycling bin at the market. I think changing the hearts and minds of shopkeepers is one challenge as they seem to go for ease and speed over environment - eg paper straws in a plastic package!!!!. I also really loved having a communal compost heap nearby until it closed and think more of these would be great - or as a friend told me, having a green bin for apartment dwellers that takes fruit and veg scraps in compostable bags like yours. A long way to go but feels we are making inroads. And people like you are leading the way - onwards and upwards.

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  2. I love reading posts like this, and I think you're spot-on that "imperfect alternatives" are still fine options! I don't have any zero-waste shops nearby, and even the stores with bulk bins are don't have ingredients like flour, sugar, etc. It's a bummer, but I do the best I can and try to find ingredients in paper packaging rather than plastic whenever possible.

    For the mass quantities, do you know anyone who would want to go in on a bulk order? At least 50g of oregano would be more manageable than 100g! :D

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