In an article published on October 28, 2019 by online magazine Civil Eats, reporter Karine Vann reviews the challenges currently facing bulk food sections of grocery stores in the United States. Following China’s decision to no longer accept foreign waste for recycling (FPF reported) and the push to reduce non-recyclable waste, many supermarket chains such as Trader Joe’s and Walmart are described as having launched initiatives to improve single-use packaging in their stores through using biodegradable, recyclable, or industrial compostable materials. However, the Civil Eats articles argues that this is “less of a shift away from packaging, and more of a gravitation to a different kind of packaging. For many consumers, who are concerned about the dangers of plastic pollution and remain skeptical about the headlong rise of single-use biodegradables, it’s a few steps too short.” To reduce packaging, some stores have started to shift towards offering bulk container dispensers for food items. However, this switch has faced a number of challenges, including some stores being accused of sending mixed messages through providing consumers single-use plastic bags to dispense the products into.
Vann argues that “bulk shopping has emerged an unwilling hero of sustainability: A hero because those rows of refillable gravity dispensers are the centerpiece of every zero-waste store in the world. But unwilling, because outside of the small world of zero waste shopping, buying bulk to reduce consumer packaging is almost never encouraged by American businesses, and a good chunk of the time, it is even prohibited.” Of those larger chains that recently started providing bulk dispensers, the article notes that there has even been a lack of promoting the new option to consumers. This, Vann writes, seems to be largely due to concerns about food safety and the perception and interpretation of federal laws. The article reports that the U.S. chain Whole Foods had insisted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forbids stores from allowing customers to fill their own containers in order to avoid contamination. However, Vann clarifies that the FDA has rather described this food code as “more of a suggestion” and a “model…offered for adoption” by state, local, and federal governments – not a rule.
As an example to calm such safety concerns, the article describes The Good Food Store in the U.S. state of Montana. For the past 20 years, the store’s employees have been collecting and sanitizing customers’ containers for re-use with their dispensers. They are constantly inspected by government authorities to ensure standards are met. “Ideally, I would like to think that as we discover the benefits of reducing packaging, health departments and government entities will adjust their thinking and use a process like ours as an example for what can be done safely and effectively. And maybe incorporate those guidelines to allow others to do the same,” said Layne Rolston from The Good Food Store.
In comparison to the reluctance seen in the U.S., Vann describes European retailers as having decided to “take the leap” towards implementing bulk food in larger grocery store chains. An example is the new unpacked section of U.K. supermarket chain Waitrose. Catherine Conway, a U.K. based consultant for developing bulk food sections in stores says “often, when bulk sections fail to attract a refillable audience, it is because the supermarket in question has not allotted the proper resources—supervision, marketing, maintenance, employee training, and sometimes special infrastructure.” She also advocates for the importance of increasing the education of consumers. “Unless you’re into the world of zero waste, people won’t look for a [bulk foods] section [in a store], and they won’t know what to do. Also, you spent the last 30, 40 years telling them all they should care about is convenience and price, so currently all they care about is convenience and price.”
Even with all of the current challenges that exist for implementing and expanding bulk foods to reduce packaging, Conway still has a positive outlook. “I always tell people that the kids in school now that are being taught to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ are your employees and your consumers of the future. And they cannot go through all of this schooling … and come out of it wanting to live how we currently live. So we are going to have to change how we do things. And those that do survive in the packaging industry will realize that they have to go with it.”
Karine Vann (October 28, 2019). “US Supermarkets Are Doing Bulk Food All Wrong.” Civil Eats