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Green Germany: A packaging-free perspective on grocery shopping

March 31, 2016

Imagine that you no longer have a trash can. There is no place to throw away waste inside of your home, and no trash bin outside that you can set on your curb for your municipality to collect for you. Every piece of garbage that you would normally throw in the trash and forget about is now strewn about your home, dispersed among your food, clothes and furniture. You’d probably eventually get sick of the trash, dig some holes in your backyard and fill those with the waste, but what happens when you run out of space there? You’d quickly realize that your backyard is finite, and instead of thinking of different places you could put your waste, you might start brainstorming ways you could cut it off at the source.  

Garbage is one of the best examples of the old cliché, “out of sight, out of mind.” It smells, it’s dirty and it takes up space, so it only makes sense that we shove it into plastic bags that we throw into bins for someone to take to landfills far away from our nice, tidy houses. But like our hypothetical backyards, the area on the planet that can be used to stash our trash isn’t limitless.

To be fair, all of the things we throw away aren’t taken to landfills, and we’ve actually come up with some solutions to deal with our waste. We can burn it and use the heat to power homes, or we can recycle certain materials and reuse them in new products. These solutions, however, address the symptoms rather than the root of the problem.

As consumers, it’s almost impossible to buy even food products without also buying the plastic they’re wrapped in. The only way you could go to the grocery store and not come out with anything that will have to be thrown away (food waste not included) would be if you brought your own bags and only bought produce. Even then, so much produce is prepackaged in plastic bags and containers that even finding waste-free fruits and vegetables could be a struggle. So, if you are looking to reduce your footprint and minimize your waste as a consumer, the grocery store might not be the best place to start – unless you happen to live in Germany.

Produce on display at Original Unverpackt
Produce on display at Original Unverpackt, a packaging-free grocery store in Berlin, Germany.

Original Unverpackt, an entirely packaging-free grocery store located in downtown Berlin, is one of the first of its kind to exist anywhere in the world. The concept is simple: you bring your own bags and containers and pay for the food by weight. If you happen to forget your bags, no need to worry, there are enough burlap bags and glass jars of all shapes and sizes to go around. The store itself isn’t all that big, but the message it’s sending to consumers and business owners around the world is monumental: food packaging isn’t necessary.

There is one obstacle, however, that stands in the way of a society that produces considerably less waste – convenience. As I mentioned in my first blog post, grocery stores in Denmark expect you to either bring your own bags or pay for plastic bags in the store. As an American used to getting so many free plastic bags that there is a designated bag to hold bags in my apartment, this was hard to adjust to. The first two times shopping, I forgot the bags entirely. The third time I remembered as I was walking into the store. The fourth time I remembered just as I left my building. Finally, though, by the fifth (or possibly sixth) time, I remembered, and now it’s just a normal part of going to the store. 

Learning to bring my own bags to the grocery store was not the most convenient thing in the world, but it wasn’t impossible. It’s just a habit I had to form, and now when it’s time to go to the grocery store I don’t think twice about it. I will confess, though, that I only formed this habit because I had to. If the grocery stores here provided free bags, there’s a very good chance that I wouldn’t have changed my ways.

This is why packaging-free grocery stores like Original Unverpackt are great in theory, but until we as a society aren’t left with the choice between going to a grocery store that packages things for you and going to a packaging-free store, we will continue buying tomatoes in a plastic carton, or spinach in a plastic bag, only because a viable alternative doesn’t yet exist.

Madeline Fischer is a junior at UW-Madison from Blanchardville, Wis., double majoring in environmental studies and life sciences communication. While studying abroad for the spring semester in Copenhagen, Denmark she will document her experience on a student blog, Bringing Bæredygtighed Back.