BYOB at Austin’s Pending No Packaging Grocery Store

ColumnAre you willing to shop package free?

If you’re reading this you probably bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Maybe you even wash out your plastic produce bags until they’re in tatters. But how far are you willing to go down the no-packaging road?

If the Brothers Lane in Austin, TX have their way, you’ll eschew packaging all together and buy everything in bulk. You’ll bring cloth bags or pre-weighed plastic or glass containers to In.gredients, the store they plan to open this fall in East Austin. You’ll refill wine bottles and lotion containers. You’ll not purchase anything that comes in a box or package.

Their plan is to nudge Austinites along the path to no packaging, gently, by opening a package-free, zero waste grocery store that offers compostable and reusable containers to those who haven’t quite picked up the habit of bringing their own.

Why is this important? We send 1.4 billion pounds of waste to landfills per day in the US. 40% of it comes from packaging—much of it very convenient, but entirely unnecessary.

Think about it. Does cereal have to come in a bag AND a box? No, the box just makes for easy transport and shelving and provides convenient space for advertising. Eggs, on the other hand, kind of need to be transported in egg cartons. Luckily they’re compostable. Unfortunately Austin doesn’t offer curbside composting to residential customers. The city picks up yard waste, but unless you’re a really crack home composter, you’re going to have trouble composting packaging. Throwing compostable packaging in the garbage doesn’t address the issue. Hopefully people will reuse any compostable packaging the store provides as many times as possible.

Taking into account the impossibility of going 100% waste free, opening a store like this is still a bold move. Customers will be asked to completely change the way they shop. Cleaning products, beer, wine, lotions, oils, and such will all come in bulk, as will things like yogurt, milk, and other dairy products. Think about the center of the store with its shelves of packaged foods. It will not exist. This means no “good” processed foods like canned tomatoes and beans that make cooking from scratch quicker and easier.

“It sounds intriguing, but as far as I can tell the number of people that bring their own bags to the market – even at the farmer’s market – isn’t incredibly high, so I am not sure about folks bringing their own containers, said Briana Stone, East Austin resident. “Targeting food deserts is an interesting idea, and reducing waste is definitely important, but I hope they figure out how to keep the prices reasonable and  make their concept work for busy, not wealthy families. I plan to check it out when it opens,” she added.

Christian Lane, one of the founders of the market, addressed the issue of pleasing and attracting a diverse clientele:

“We’re hoping that our location, on the border between one somewhat gentrified neighborhood, and other less affluent neighborhoods will be an advantage in reaching the people who want and in cases need to get away from over-processed foods (and junk foods) and cook from scratch. There are many Latino immigrants and children of immigrants (us included) who have never stopped cooking from scratch. Post recession, people of all incomes and backgrounds are realizing that we need to slow down and do what we can to achieve sustainability.”

The store will offer produce, grains and legumes, spices, tea and coffee, dried fruits and nuts, baking ingredients, oils, dairy, and beer and wine. There will be animal proteins offered in proportion within the product mix to reflect the expense and resource intensiveness of their production. The focus will be on local, organic, non-processed pant-based foods without artificial ingredients. Products that require packaging for food safety will be “package light,” and recyclable and compostable whenever possible.

“We want to reduce waste, but we also want to offer better food at a fair price to everyone, while supporting farmers and food producers in our community,” said Lane. “We’re hoping to be a spark of change and an anchor in the neighborhood for the people that want to come along with us and make some simple changes. This will require education and community involvement – a very collaborative effort – which is something we’re really excited about,” he said.

The store is set to open this fall in a just-announced location in East Austin. The group hasn’t secured enough funding yet, but they announced early in hopes that the originality of their concept would attract the necessary funding.

Time will tell how many customers will go whole hog in supporting the store’s efforts by bringing containers, beyond the now pervasive reusable shopping bags. But I have high hopes. Think what could happen if the idea spread to other stores in other areas and we also got our food waste under control. A girl can dream.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: BC Mom, Rubbermaid, Editor B, Boedker

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.