In the 10-block radius around Sarah Metz's apartment in Brooklyn, there are around 50 bodegas and five or six grocery stores. None have bulk bins; like typical markets, pretty much everything you can buy comes wrapped in plastic or cardboard.
Metz is hoping to change that by opening a new packaging-free, zero-waste grocery store.
She was inspired in part by the fact that only a small fraction of plastic packaging is recycled—about 14%—which is one reason that between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
"I’ve become more and more aware of, and almost morally burdened by, the amount of waste we generate as humans and the role consumerism plays," Metz says. "On a more personal and local level, I’m frustrated by the grocery options in my community. I enjoy cooking and trying new ingredients, but I’m limited by the fact that I’m buying for one person and have a kitchen with minimal storage."
Metz, who has a full-time day job as a pediatric occupational therapist, started researching zero-waste groceries in her free time—and became so obsessed with the idea that she put together a business plan and took a trip to Europe to visit some pioneering new zero-waste supermarket chains emerging there.
The result was The Fillery, a new project now raising funds on Kickstarter. The store will mostly sell dry goods—flours, nuts, coffee, spices, chocolate, cereal, and hundreds of other items—all dispensed from bulk bins into customers' own containers. Some liquids, like olive oil, will be sold from refill stations. The store will also carry a few perishables like eggs and milk, and some local products, like jam, in "sustainable" packaging—i.e., not plastic.
The store is designed to help people rethink what they actually need to buy. "We recognize that we cannot replace everything within a regular grocery store—and we don’t aim to," says Metz. "That’s actually part of the point—there is so much excess in a regular grocery store, which is a big contributor to both food and packaging waste."
Instead of a produce section, Fillery plans to offer a CSA pickup point where customers can come get a weekly supply of seasonal vegetables from local farmers. "Space is extremely limited in Brooklyn, which I imagine is one of the reasons most grocery stores here do not have a bulk section, or at least a substantial one," she says. "I opted to leave out a produce section for a variety of reasons: to maximize the variety of bulk items I can carry, to ensure there is room for a community learning space, to support regional farms and the slow food movement, and to reduce operational costs."
While a plastic package might help processed food last longer in the typical industrial food chain—say, a package of cookies, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles from a processor and packaging plant to distributors and supermarkets—Fillery is the kind of place you might go and decide to make your own cookies from scratch. (The store also plans to offer cooking classes, for those used to relying on processed food.)
Ultimately, the store hopes to inspire shoppers to think more about packaging. "It would be fantastic if people stop throwing out packaging all together, but I know this isn’t realistic for everyone," Metz says. "Part of our mission at The Fillery is to educate our community and give them healthier, more sustainable options. We want people to start thinking in a more eco-conscious way as consumers, so not only considering the packaging an item is in, but also the life of that item. What are alternatives that might be more sustainable and longer-lasting?"