The founders of Vancouver’s first zero-waste grocery store are changing the way people shop, taking “reduce, reuse, recycle” to a whole new level.
Shoppers at the Zero Waste Market in Kitsilano bring their own containers into the store, load up on purchases and leave without using any disposable packaging. No waste is generated in the seller to buyer transaction.
“We want to do everything that you would find in a normal grocery store, unpackaged,” says Alison Carr, chief operating officer of the market, which operates once a month in the Patagonia clothing store on West Fourth.
For the customers, the option is a welcome change to conventional grocery shopping.
“I think the Zero Waste Market here is so great, it gives people a chance to be sustainable, especially since grocery markets just don’t offer people a zero waste option,” says customer Amanda Pang. “It’s really an important point of difference that separates them from others, and is a step in the right direction towards a sustainable future.”
Brianne Miller first opened the monthly pop-up store in October 2015 as a way to combat the growing problem of plastics. Her endeavour struck a chord with Carr, who joined the team in January 2016.
They sell everything from bulk foods to baked goods, as well as household products like soap, deodorant and toothbrushes without any plastic, paper or Styrofoam packaging.
The 2040 challenge
The store’s ethos is in line with Metro Vancouver’s ambitious zero-waste strategy. That plan would see the city become a no-waste jurisdiction by 2040. Municipalities across the region are trying to solve the problem of waste, but it won’t be easy.
People in Vancouver produce 485 kilograms of landfill waste per person per year, in spite of recycling programs that have been running for years, as well as organics recycling introduced recently.
David van Seters, an environmental business consultant and founder of the grocery delivery company SPUD, says that while the 2040 challenge is ambitious, goals like it are key for achieving municipal and provincial change.
Van Seters remembers working on Vancouver’s waste management plan in the early ’90s when recycling was still a radical idea.
“At the time, people said it’s just not possible. But there was a lot of publicity around this goal and the fact that other jurisdictions around the world had met this goal. Our task was to figure out how it could work,” said van Seters. “There’s a huge power in setting a goal.”
Zero waste stores grow momentum
Numerous zero-waste stores have launched across Canada in recent years, speaking to a growing trend.
In Montreal, MégaVrac and Épicerie Loco offer visitors zero-waste shopping, while an entrepreneur in Ottawa plans to open a zero-waste store called Nu Grocery this summer. Salt Spring Green owner Crystal Lehky has even mentioned the possibility of opening a second location in Vancouver.
Vancouver’s Linh Truong founded the successful zero-waste store The Soap Dispensary in 2011, before zero waste was even a thing.
“We did a sort of conservative count back in October on the anniversary of our opening and we had helped divert over 88,000 containers in five years. It felt really good to know that that was how many bottles or containers that people have made an effort to bring in and reuse,” says Truong. “We have containers that I recognize from when we first opened, so that’s really awesome.”
Opening her brick-and-mortar location was no problem for Truong. For the Zero Waste Market, the process of finding a permanent space is proving to be difficult.
Challenges in opening permanent storefront
The Zero Waste Market was set to launch a permanent storefront in late 2016, but lease negotiations delayed its opening.
“It feels like we’re being strung along. It’s taking a really long time,” says Carr.
Carr and Miller were the first to put in a proposal for commercial space at Fraser and Broadway and offered to pay market rent, but the landlord is looking for other tenants.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on [the landlord] and the city to make the space profitable. They’re kind of wanting a Waves Coffee or a Tim Horton’s franchise to go in there, because I guess they’re hoping for a better offer than market rent,” says Carr.
Carr and Miller have established themselves as green entrepreneurs.
They have participated in several business-accelerator programs at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, such as RADIUS. Their business model has even been used as a case study for city-run zero waste workshops.
“We’ve done a bunch of customer discovery and market research, so we feel pretty confident with our business model and it’s going to be a viable one. We’re just wanting to get it off the ground,” says Carr.
Strategies slow to develop
Carr has approached Vancouver city Coun. Andrea Reimer, who is currently working on it.
Carr hopes Vancouver will develop more strategies to prioritize businesses that align with the region’s zero-waste goals, such as expediting the permit process for green businesses.
“When you have a city that has these strategies and you’re waiting in line at city hall with people who are trying to open like, a bargain basement or a dollar store or something like that, it doesn’t make sense,” says Carr.
The city cannot legally prioritize green businesses, according to Reimer, despite its greenest-city commitment.
“We align with every single thing that the [zero waste] strategy is trying to achieve,” says Carr. “We’re obviously a bit more beyond it, because their definition of zero waste is just diversion. But in terms of the zero-waste 2040 goal, we check every single box.”
Carr, however, acknowledges the process on a city level is complicated and slow.
A difference in definitions
Metro Vancouver, which oversees waste management across the region, is working towards zero waste and the regional agency has been at it since 2006. Staff are actively working to decrease the amount of solid waste sent to landfills across all sectors — residential, commercial and industrial.
Carr feels like Metro Vancouver is lagging, their focus mainly being on diversion of solid waste to recycling facilities.
But Karen Storry, the senior project engineer for Metro Vancouver’s zero-waste implementation team, says the process is not as simple as people would like to think.
“I wouldn’t say that our definition is simply recycling,” says Storry. “Our goals are written with respect to how much we can divert, because that’s what we can measure. But in terms of our actions and our programs, we definitely keep the waste hierarchy in mind.”
Metro Vancouver offers tools for businesses to improve recycling, such as signage and workshops. The agency also determines tipping fees and conducts research on improving participation in garbage reduction. Metro Vancouver collaborates with businesses to advocate reduce and reuse initiatives.
This month’s Zero Waste Market pop-up was the busiest one yet.
“The goals are there and, slowly, there’s a demand,” says Carr. “So hopefully with our presence and other zero-waste phenomena starting up in this city. I’m sure, well I hope, that things will get a little bit better beyond the diversion. Recycling is so ’90s to me. It’s really funny that it’s still an overarching message.”