Dec 18, 2019

This article was originally published on as part of the series ‘Sustainability Unwrapped’ sponsored by Henkel.

‘It’s the only way to combat single-use plastics’: Birmingham’s zero-waste supermarket

Shopping cart

By David Benady

Zero-waste shopping promises to cut down on wasteful packaging and eradicate single-use plastics from the weekly grocery shop. But can we really be weaned off our addiction to the ease and convenience offered by traditional supermarkets, with their pots of chilled products and plastic-wrapped packs of fruit?

Jeanette Wong and partner Tom Pell think we can. In June 2018, they opened the Clean Kilo, a zero-waste vegetarian supermarket in Digbeth, Birmingham where shoppers buy in bulk, bringing in their own containers and filling them with everything from rice, pulses and pasta to yoghurt, butter and milk. The idea is to keep packaging to a minimum, so everything is scoopable, pourable and refillable. You can squeeze your own orange juice, get ice-cream in cones and find a selection of fresh fruit and vegetables. There are eco-friendly cleaning products and personal care items. Moisturiser and body wash are sourced locally from nearby Bournville, and the contents of the five-litre containers can be pumped into shoppers’ vessels. Washing up liquid, detergent and cleaners are dispensed from stainless steel containers into customers’ bottles, while laundry and dishwasher powders are scooped into their containers. There’s not a piece of single-use plastic in sight.

“The system is complex, it’s difficult to manage – it takes more time, so it’s not as cost-effective as a traditional supermarket. But that’s the only way we’re going to combat using single-use plastics,” says Pell. He estimates the store has saved on more than 150,000 pieces of single-use plastic since opening.

Shopping at the Clean Kilo offers novelty and fun, with shoppers measuring out their groceries and weighing them on scales. Serving some 80 shoppers a day, the store attracts those who are committed to doing their bit for the environment.

“It’s been really rewarding seeing customers come in with bags of reused containers, old shampoo bottles, cleaning product bottles and Tupperware, and they’ve made an effort to clean them,” says Wong. “Customers come in from places like Edgbaston, which is a 45-minute walk – people are really committed.”

The store has a hygiene policy that is advertised throughout, asking shoppers to make sure their containers are clean. Most products are dry, reducing the chances of bacterial infection. Butter, milk and yoghurt are served by staff who can check with customers that containers are clean.

The pair hit on the idea for a zero-waste supermarket in 2017 after watching A Plastic Ocean, which highlighted the damage done to our waters by plastic pollution.

“People were aware of the problem – but not to the extent that we are now. We were talking about how we could reduce plastic in our own lives because these days it’s very difficult, as everything is surrounded by single-use plastic and there are so many convenience items,” says Wong.

Neither had experience of retail – Wong was a fashion designer and Pell had studied chemistry. But, convinced that food shopping could be done more ethically, they launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise money for the venture. “It was quite risky and obscure and people weren’t sure why we were doing it,” says Wong.

While the fundraising appeal was running, they had a stroke of luck. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II finale screened on BBC1, bringing the issue of oceanic plastic pollution to a mass audience and calling for people to reduce plastic waste.

“Suddenly everyone was having that conversation, which was fantastic timing for us, so more than 500 people contributed to the campaign and we raised more than £20,000.” This financial injection was vital to making the store attractive and convenient enough to become a regular destination for a weekly shop.

After months of research they decided on the vertical dispensing jars that line the walls –there are 80 in all – and the 40 jars that are used with scoops. The weighing scales were expensive, as they subtract the weight of the container to give a net weight for product, then produce a barcode to scan at checkout. Although these stickers cannot be recycled, because of the chemicals added to the paper, Wong expects recyclable barcode stickers to be available soon.

There are some items they haven’t been able to source in bulk, such as chopped tomatoes, and they haven’t found a source to supply cucumbers without plastic wrapping. Wong adds: “Where we can, we always work with local suppliers, which means we can create a circular system with them where we are reusing containers.”

So is this the start of a zero-waste revolution that will transform the way we shop? “The concept is already scaling up quite well, but through independents rather than the supermarkets,” says Wong, adding that while supermarkets would be good to get people used to the concept, it might be difficult to transform them because of the cost involved.

Even though packaging can account for a fifth of the cost of a product, the style of retailing at the Clean Kilo incurs other expenses, as it requires greater staff involvement. This is partly to help shoppers with the new way of shopping. But zero-waste also means keeping small amounts of products in the dispensers, as they have a short shelf life, and refilling them regularly, which is labour intensive. Cleaning products have a shelf life of six months to a year, while personal care products vary. Many have the use-by date written on the dispenser and shoppers are advised to note these on their containers.

Spillage was a problem initially, so staff can check that people do not overfill their containers. As customers get used to the process they will hopefully become more aware and avoid waste.

In January, the Clean Kilo won a small business grant from Fedex worth £20,000 that is being invested in opening a second store in nearby Bournville. This will join the 200 or so zero-waste stores that have opened in the UK since 2017, when plastic pollution hit the headlines. The plastic-free revolution is gathering pace, but will require flexibility from shoppers and retailers alike.

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