A Journey towards Zero Waste Shopping

We often look around us and see problems that need fixing. Coming up with the right solutions can be difficult, especially when dealing with a huge global problem like waste. The problem is enormous, with a number of different aspects, stakeholders, causes, and effects – and so many possible solutions. We’ve tried to tackle one […]

We often look around us and see problems that need fixing. Coming up with the right solutions can be difficult, especially when dealing with a huge global problem like waste. The problem is enormous, with a number of different aspects, stakeholders, causes, and effects – and so many possible solutions. We’ve tried to tackle one element of this huge problem with our own unique solution. Below is our story, which shows that the initial solution might not always be the one you end up with.

In February 2015, a friend and I heard news of a new zero-waste shop opening in France. This was the inspiration that moved us to try and make this happen is Estonia, too. We were sick of all the single-use plastic packaging in our shops, and how much waste it creates. Zero waste stores already existed in several places in Europe, so the idea seemed to be working. We made some plans, set up a Facebook group, and gathered a few people interested in helping us achieve this.

Unpackaged. Photo by Kadri Kalle.

Be Clear About What You Want to Do

During our first meeting we realised we wanted to create something that would be user-friendly for people who are not very environmentally conscious yet – for people who wouldn’t go to several different shops just to find a particular brand of organic soap. A shop, where you could buy all the groceries that any supermarket offers.

It also became clear that most of us didn’t actually want to become shop owners, as:

  1. we knew nothing about shop-keeping,
  2. we didn’t want to create a new niche shop, which would rely on having a good location, and a lot of dedicated customers, in order to survive.

But this didn’t mean our plan died there. Our next idea was a shop-within-a-shop: dedicated packaging-free sections in larger shops, so that people could still get all the things they needed from just one shop. This idea seemed to be supported by an example of a zero waste shop from London, which decided to run a zero-waste section in a bigger organic shop after some years of operating as a separate shop. A further idea was to look around for existing shops in Estonia, to see if they would be interested in adopting some zero-waste approaches, and this was the idea we chose to pursue. So, we established ourselves as a group looking for and offering zero-waste options for the existing world of supermarkets.

Be Open to New Possibilities

We started out with very little knowledge about how shops work, or about the rules that surround packaging. We agreed early on that we would be open to change our course, as and when we gained new knowledge and developed new ideas. Plus, as a volunteer group, we were dependent on the interests and abilities of the volunteers, and where the volunteers choose to focus their energy. One of our volunteers came up with the idea of a summer challenge: to work towards getting food and drinks served at summer festivals without the use of disposable cups or dishes. This idea grew into a Facebook group, which ended up with almost 500 participants all trying to use reusable dishes at festivals. This became our first experiment, taking our zero-waste quest in a whole new direction.

After the summer festival season, we asked members of the Facebook group for feedback, and analysed our own attempts as well. We learned that taking your own cups and bowls to summer festivals was a challenge for even the most eco-minded people. People move around a lot in summer – carrying dishes is an extra weight, and there are limited opportunities for cleaning. From this, we gathered that offering reusable cups and plates at the festival, which would be taken back and washed by the organisers later, would be much more effective. Following this project, reducing plastic waste at summer events felt both important and achievable for us, with a lot of potential for success, so we decided to make it a key focus for our group.

A few of our teammates met with some festival organisers, and people involved in recycling. As it turned out, this was an idea they had already been considering, too. As a result, we now have a dedicated team working to introduce a rental cup service in some of Estonia’s summer festivals. This is an idea, which has already been implemented in some parts of Europe (e.g. ecocups).

Understanding Human Behaviour

We also started searching for shops that would be interested in experimenting with some zero-waste approaches. We soon discovered that some (mostly organic) shops already offered some packaging-free options for certain foods, and detergents. As our main aim was to reduce packaging in more mainstream shopping, we found a partner from a conventional supermarket chain to work with instead. Our discussions started with where they felt the amount of packaging could feasibly be reduced, and they brought up complications relating to consumer satisfaction and government regulations.

At the same time, we teamed up with a group of social studies students. They chose to focus their coursework on analysing our initiative, and conducting some behavioural experiments. While raising awareness about environmental behaviours is often the focus of environmental campaigns, human behaviour is often automatic and can be more influenced by things such as how products are placed on supermarket shelves. As the topic of banning single-use plastic bags was emerging at the time, we decided to put our focus on changing behaviours around plastic bag use.

The students observed people’s behaviour in supermarkets, and set up a focus group in which they asked people to assess some alternatives to plastic bags such as paper and mesh bags. The main results were:

  1. It is difficult to replace the plastic bag as it is very universal – it is transparent, waterproof, protects against dirt, and can be used for all types of products. Plus, it costs very little – close to nothing.
  2. Most people don’t think about reducing plastic when they shop – they use the packaging which is the most visible, and most easily reachable.

So, the conclusions we have reached from this are:

  • We need to create alternatives to the plastic bag, which meet the same criteria as those which make the plastic bag so popular to use.
  • We need to put more focus on re-designing the shopping environment, with the aim of making behaviour change much easier for people.
  • It is difficult to persuade a single supermarket to make changes, which may make their customers’ shopping experience more difficult, as this puts them at a disadvantage when compared to other stores. Regulation in this area would therefore be of use.

The Story Keeps Evolving

We have learned a lot in the past couple of years, and our initial idea has changed a lot since we started out. We still want to work to tackle the problem of packaging waste in shops, but it turned out that creating a zero-waste shop from scratch wasn’t our thing. Instead, we have made progress along the path to greener festivals, gained a better understanding of people’s shopping behaviours relating to packaging, and created an active Facebook group bringing together Estonians who are interested in a zero waste lifestyle. A zero-waste shop did open in a small town of Pärnu in Estonia, but they are currently temporarily closed.

The many different sides of the packaging problem still exist, and there are still numerous possible solutions that we could try. Since we started this project, we have seen changes in behaviour and changes in supermarkets, which offer an increasing amount of packaging-free products. However, the biggest change that this initiative created was a reusable cup rental service, which is used more and more in summer festivals in Estonia (Topsiring – Cupcircle in Estonian). A totally different group of people actually made a zero waste store in the small Estonian town of Pärnu, and several (eco-)shops have introduced zero waste (bulk) shopping possibilities. Plus we have a lively zero waste lifestyle group in Facebook, with new people joining every week. So things are slowly moving, but in the end our best guide is – as author Daniel Goleman says – to look at sustainability as a verb, not as a noun. It is a constantly evolving process, not a fixed status – just like our initiative.

Kadri Kalle, Knowledge Team Manager