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Isn’t it a paradox, sending a confusing message to the consumer, when each bunch of bananas proudly bearing the EU organic logo is sealed in a plastic bag? ? For products that need packaging, I’m usually hesitant when having to pick between an eco-label product in plastic and its non-organic equivalent wrapped in paper. The outcome often is buying neither. ? Yes, this may seem as a little insignificant thought process, but you know what? Offer is driven by demand and someone is surely buying even these bloody fancy plastic-packed bio bananas. ? Similar discussions could become absolutely normal, positive and even desirable, not only an attribute of wind-in-the-hair-let’s-save-the-planet-hippies. Each of us can contribute to a shift towards a healthier approach to consumption. The littlest things have the potential to become a powerful movement. If we want. ? #bethechange #saynotoplastic #zerowaste
It was early morning and I was sitting in public transport with my mug of coffee, traveling to the second Slovakia Going Zero Waste conference, when I noticed something unusual.
Half of the tram was packed with people of all ages in their running gear, youngsters in fancy sneakers, pensioners in their ever-cool, old-school sweat pants—all heading to the Bratislava Marathon. The other half of the tram was peeking at these sports enthusiasts—half-sleeping, half smiling—a heart-warming sense of solidarity and support hanging in the air.
And for these few moments, I was utterly in love with a city where I felt everyone was either an environmentalist or a marathon runner.
At the conference, I was amazed to hear there are some 85 zero-waste shops in total in “Czechoslovakia” (as many of us still refer to the two countries out of nostalgia). To break it down, there are 65 zero-waste shops in the Czech Republic and 20 in Slovakia, which, compared to the approximately 30 shops in Germany and only a bunch in Scandinavia, are pretty fascinating numbers for such small, former Eastern-Bloc countries.
There’s something amazing going on here!
In today’s world, zero-waste or bulk stores are like a fresh breeze in the jungle of Tescos, Lidls, Walmarts, Aldis, Sainsbury’s, and other supermarket chains trying to sell you everything from a garden hose to snorkeling gear, when you only need to fetch a loaf of bread and olives. The zero-waste concept may not be an option 24/7 and for everything, due to lack of options of certain goods and the inconvenience linked to the proximity of a store near your home and the need to drag your jars/containers/bags.
But with a bit of planning and a vision of the greater good, developing the habit of shopping in zero-waste stores, for at least part of your regular grocery list, has benefits on many different levels.
Natural and simple
The concept of zero-waste stores is built around the values of refusing what you don’t need, and reducing what you think you need, while minimizing waste production on different levels. It’s what our post-World War II era grandparents practiced by default, often having little money, and what people in developing countries practice out of necessity.
It is not an extreme or hippie trend requiring us to do all our shopping with actual zero packaging, but rather an ideal we can gradually approach by taking little steps in changing our consumption patterns to decrease our ecological footprint and live a healthier, simpler life. It’s about returning back to the basics of how it used to be, when we had a relationship with our food, our communities, and our natural environment. Corporations will most likely not get us there.
People should be able to choose where, from whom, with what origin, and in what quality and form they get their groceries and other products. They should have other options, aside from the anonymous supermarket chains—the greatest polluters of the planet, but showing little inclination to reduce their plastic footprint. The current grocery store system is broken, tangled up in a cycle of waste, and we need healthier choices committed to social and environmental responsibility.
Isn’t it a paradox that in the modern world so saturated with multiple choice, where you can buy gluten-free, lactose-free, fat-free, Asian food, Italian food, and Middle Eastern food, the one thing that’s nearly impossible to buy is plastic-free? Zero-waste shops reduce waste throughout the supply chain and often support local economies, providing an alternative to our consumption-fueled lifestyle, encouraging us to shift our mindset to slow down, want and need less, and connect with the world around us.
By the nature and character of zero-waste shops, they offer food and other household goods contributing to a healthier lifestyle, given a wide selection of whole foods, richer in nutrition than when industrially processed, or natural cosmetics and cleaning products without questionable ingredients. The opportunity to buy only the amount I need makes me think about the volume and type of my consumption more consciously, which contributes to a more selective use of groceries and a focus on quality over quantity, minimizing the excessive purchase of “unnecessary” foods influenced by marketing or discounts in supermarkets—and eventually reducing food waste and overeating.
By buying package-free products, we prevent the creation of trash in our households and in the production process, through supporting businesses that source and sell their goods in this way. Being able to purchase just the actual thing you need, you eliminate unnecessary single-use packaging, which is polluting the planet, our oceans, and air, contributing to climate change and habitat degradation, endangering wildlife, as well as increasing legal and illegal landfills.
We can take part in the improvement of this state and aim for minimizing our environmental impact in the maximum possible extent, which may be different for each of us. Although we now know that the environmental crisis is alarming and immediate, major action is required globally, contributing to the solution with our individual behaviour may be more empowering, rather than waiting and hoping for outside changes.
There is often a cool community of passionate humans accumulated around the zero-waste shops, engaged in different forms of environmental awareness-raising initiatives and activism, which upgrade the mundane “duty” of grocery shopping to something more. It’s suddenly not just an anonymous business without a face and a vision—there is a breathing soul behind it.
The range of goods is often sourced from local farmers and producers, which is a great way of building local communities and supporting local economies, sharing similar values and interests. I believe that a healthy, satisfied, and thriving community is the basis for a healthy, satisfied, and prospering society and country.
But is zero-waste for the privileged only?
This is a yes and no answer. Shopping zero-waste may be more demanding when it comes to access, time, and energy. Not everyone has a zero-waste store in their proximity, and those who do may not be able to afford this type of shopping regularly, or exclusively. Not everyone has the health or capacity to remodel their habits and lifestyle. Many lack the support to take the more bumpy, less convenient way, drowning in too much responsibility, or in isolation.
But there are things to consider. Teaming up with friends, colleagues, or neighbours and doing joint shopping—taking rounds in traveling to the store to pick up the order for everyone, and dividing it among yourselves back home—may be of big help and a fun way to interact with your community. And although less environmentally friendly, some zero-waste shops offer the delivery service option.
The price tag may be higher for certain goods, but small, independent businesses will always be a little more expensive compared to big supermarket chains. If the store stocks products that are as local as possible, rather than from China, and from organic farms, rather than conventional factory farming, which have a smaller production due to lower use of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilisers, thus requiring higher labour inputs, also adds up to the price. So, if you look at the price-quality ratio, the fact that you are buying real, whole foods, most likely being more conscious about what and how much you buy, possibly resulting in preferring quality over quantity and not buying unneeded items, you might very well end up saving money in the long run.
Either way, it is up to each one of us to decide the value we attach to the health of our environment, body, and communities. So, let’s be careful with judgments—not being too harsh on ourselves or others—and do our best.