This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
At Precycle, an airy grocery store in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, shoppers can find spices and fruit, grains and pastas, fresh olives and tofu, toothbrushes and floss, and many other household basics. What they won’t find? Plastic.
Precycle is one in an expanding cohort of grocery stores that use little, if any, plastic packaging. As awareness of our ever-growing plastic pollution problem has swelled, some shoppers have looked for places where they can buy food free from the cling wrap and Styrofoam trays that fill many modern grocery stores.
In the last few years, more and more plastic-free food stores have opened their doors, springing up from Hong Kong to Germany to Ecuador. These stores are testing the models that grocers have long relied on, searching for ways to de-plasticize both the food supply chain and their customers’ carts.
“I opened the store because I had this little blister on my brain telling me there was a different way to do things,” says Katerina Bogatireva, the founder and owner of Precycle. Once she saw how pervasive plastic was in her life, she wanted to do something to help herself and others break free from it.
“It was like I was dropped in the middle of the sea and I couldn’t see the coast, but I had to swim forward toward a solution,” she says. And what she came up with was a plastic-free grocery store.
Does that avocado need to be wrapped in plastic?
Plastic is ubiquitous in most grocery stores, so common it’s almost invisible.
But the moments when its presence is felt can be dramatic. The internet erupted in outrage in 2016 when Whole Foods packed pre-peeled oranges in plastic containers. A few months later, it erupted again when a Canadian company marketed pre-halved avocados, the green hemispheres individually vacuum-sealed in a thick layer of plastic. “The avocado comes in its own NATURAL PACKAGING,” typed commenters on Reddit. “What kind of person would do this?” typed others.
Others defended the moves, saying, like plastic straws, the pre-peeled oranges and avocados can be important resources for people with disabilities and mobility issues. People with arthritic hands often struggle to peel oranges, for example.
But avocado fiasco was, in some ways, the logical outcome of a long, complicated story about something else: Food waste.
Plastic food packaging established its reign over the modern grocery store because it served a crucial purpose in preserving perishable food items for much longer than their natural life.
A cucumber, picked even a little early, only lasts about two weeks maximum. But wrap that same cucumber in an impermeable plastic sleeve and the decay slows down. In the cutthroat world of grocery stores, where profit margins are thin and every bruised apple that doesn’t sell represents a loss, that extended life makes a big difference.
Plastic took over because it was cheap, light, and convenient. As supply chains daisy-linked longer and longer, the weight and size of a package became more critical, so a quart of milk encased in a few-ounce plastic jug was better, shipping-costs-wise, than that same quart glugging in a hefty, breakable glass bottle. Produce, carefully nestled into specially molded plastic trays, stacked in light, sturdy plastic crates, and loaded on cheap, sturdy plastic pallets, could survive weeks rather than days.
At the same time, consumer behavior also changed. With the advent of refrigerators, shoppers shifted away from buying just what they needed for a day or two and started shopping for a week or more. And where cars were abundant, shoppers could buy more—not just what they could carry but what they could load into trunks and backseats.
Taken together, it meant that consumers were looking for products that would last longer. Airtight plastic packaging helped that happen.
The trickle of plastic food packaging, though, is now a deluge. Packaging makes up nearly a quarter of all the trash that goes to U.S. landfills, according to the EPA—and much, if not most of that waste, was at some point attached to a food or beverage item.
But, “packaging plays an important role in helping to protect food, so getting rid of it all is not the answer,” says Liz Goodwin, the director of the food loss and waste program at the World Resources Institute. “Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that.”
Plastic-free grocery stores experiment with solutions
What’s a shopper—or a store manager—to do?
“Like with almost anything sustainability related, the model is both something very new and innovative and also something that draws from things that have been around for a long time,” says Elizabeth Balkan, the director of the food waste program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There have been local health food stores and co-ops around the country for 30 or 40 years that have been placing bulk food at the center of their commerce.”
For Bogatireva of Precycle, the challenge was to figure out how much plastic snaked through normal supply chains and into the hands of consumers—and then get rid of it. Providing bulk foods that customers can scoop into their own containers to take home was a central concept.
But she also looked upstream. It wasn’t enough for her that customers didn’t see the plastic, if it was just lurking behind the scenes, secretly peeled off before their eyes could land on it.
Plastic-wrapped fruits and veggies were a no-no, so produce would have to come from local sources who could deliver bushels of apples in reusable crates. Then, she tried to find tofu that didn’t come in a throwaway plastic container. No luck, for individually sized blocks. Eventually, she linked up with a manufacturer who will deliver big blocks of tofu in a five-gallon bucket that they’ll pick up after it’s emptied and refill. So there’s still some plastic in the chain—but it’s far from single-use.
The other part of the challenge was helping her customers maintain a sense of ease and convenience. It’s better if they come in with their own empty jars to fill or egg cartons to re-stock, but if they don’t, she has ones they can pick up. Since the produce options she has are often dependent on what the farmers bring in, there’s a shelf of cookbooks to browse for ideas.
“It’s learning to think about shopping in a different way,” she says.
Big stores tackle the issue
At bigger stores, the drive to slim down the plastic footprint is also taking hold, if less comprehensively.
Kroger, which operates over 2,700 grocery stores across the U.S., recently began to phase out plastic bags from their various chains. The impact adds up fast, says Jessica Adelman, the vice president of corporate affairs for Kroger. The company calculated that they handed out about 6 billion plastic bags a year, about six percent of the total number of bags distributed annually across the country. That’s the equivalent of about 32,000 tons of plastic, or enough to fill over 3,000 moving trucks jam packed with bags.
Trader Joe’s has also begun the process of peering into its supply chain to peel away unnecessary plastic use. Matt Sloan, VP of marketing for Trader Joe's, is realistic about how much work it will take to de-plasticize the grocery business. Think about a tea bag, he explains. There’s plastic in that packaging that lets the tea stay fresh for months. But the biodegradable or bio-sourced plastic alternatives aren’t yet good enough to maintain that same freshness, so changing the packaging would disrupt the product, and lead to more waste.
Each change seems like it should be simple, Sloan says. But, “we're at a point where we understand the practical realities to be so underdeveloped” for both alternatives to traditional plastic packaging and to recycling solutions that even the smallest changes can generate big, cascading challenges.
“We’re often running down this path and then hitting the proverbial wall, and I think we’re getting to the fascinating and frustrating point where we’re understanding there's no simple thing that has in it the all-encompassing solution.”
But more awareness and pressure from consumers will keep the projects moving forward, says Balkan of NRDC.
“There's been some really powerful shifts in consumer awareness around single-use items, straws and bags lately,” says Balkan. “People are starting to see that the dependence we've formed on these things—we can undo it, if we wish to. And not having them—it might not make our lives any harder or more complicated; it could even make them much better.”
National Geographic is committed to reducing plastics pollution. Learn more about our non-profit activities at natgeo.org/plastics. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
The National Geographic Society and Sky Ocean Ventures have launched the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge, which asks problem solvers around the globe to develop novel solutions to tackle the world’s plastic waste crisis. Have an idea? Submit your solution by June 11 at oceanplastic-challenge.org.