Forget plastic bag bans. Berlin is now home to a supermarket that's gotten rid of all disposable packaging. Original Unverpackt ("Original Unpackaged"), which opened Saturday, is more of a shop, to be exact, but its 350-some products -- including from fruits, vegetables, dry grains and pourable liquids like yogurt, lotion and shampoo -- are dispensed into refillable containers. (Some liquids come in bottles with deposits on them, which is already standard in Germany).
The shop, backed by crowdfunding, is a creative experiment in a new kind of shopping, one that takes the ethics of stores like Whole Foods to a new level. It sells mostly organic products, each of which is labeled with its country of origin, and eschews brand names. Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski, the duo behind the project, were driven by the slogan "Let's be real, try something impossible."
It remains to be seen if the store's scalable -- and whether it will catch on with the public. One "group of Germans" interviewed by NPR Berlin complained that the store "looks too pretty and nice, and too bourgeois;" CityLab characterized such sentiments as reflecting a sense that "living a supposedly pared-down, less wasteful life is essentially a lifestyle hobby for people with enough spare cash to play at green dress-up." But while many of the products offered, perhaps because they're organic, tend to skew toward the pricier end of things, others are equivalent or cheaper than standard supermarket fare, one German newspaper reports. And a virtue of the fill-your-own-container model is that customers can purchase ingredients in exact amounts, meaning they don't have to overspend for food they don't need.
The environmental benefits of that model are not to be discounted, of course. Up to a third of the world's food is wasted, and in developed nations, much of that waste occurs when people bring home more than they're able to eat before it goes bad. If people are only selecting what they need, they're less likely to throw excess food out later. In the U.S., food packaging is credited with keeping the food supply incredibly safe and extending its shelf life, which helps address the food waste problem, but it's also a major source of waste in and of itself, constituting about a third of our municipal solid waste. Packaging also comes with safety issues of its own, stemming from the potential for chemicals to leach into food. Original Unverpackt’s strategy, which complies with Germany's strict sanitation rules, is to require all containers brought into the store to be disinfected on-site.
If nothing else, the shop presents a thought-provoking model for consumption that recalls the store, opened by ex-Trader Joe's president Doug Rauch, that deals exclusively in expired foods. As Jonathan Bloom, whose explored food waste in the book “American Wasteland,” commented to Salon of that venture, "we are well overdue for some new ideas.”