The price of zero waste groceries

Before we get started, a slightly unrelated (but surprisingly relevant) message. ripple – Cardiff’s first not-for-profit zero waste store – is running a Kickstarter at the moment. Please go check it out, share with your friends and support if you can. Every bit will help to bring a zero waste store to Cardiff!
 I have been struggling a bit with how to write this post (in fact the date on the draft goes back to May) because I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to reduce their waste and single-use plastic consumption. But the simple fact is that for me right now buying zero waste (or plastic free) groceries is on the whole much more expensive, and I think that would be the case for many people in the UK.

At the ripple Kickstarter launch this week, founder Sophie related the money that we spend to energy and an expression of our values (I wish I wrote down the exact quote!). I love this sentiment as it recognises that the benefits of avoiding waste through the decisions we make go beyond the environmental benefits – there is also the positivity that comes with doing something that you are passionate about and believe in. So while I recognise that it is a privilege to be able to spend a bit more on groceries to make sure they don’t come in ten layers of plastic, this perspective also recognises the positive side of spending in accordance with your values.

In Melbourne we purchased most of our food from Terra Madre in Northcote (I still don’t understand how they sell organic food so cheaply!) or Friends of the Earth in Collingwood – both about a 10 minute bike ride from where we lived (which in Melbourne is close!). We’d also shop at various old school deli-type places around Brunswick and Thornbury that would have things like chickpeas in massive sacks on the floor and were happy enough for us to use our own bags. Shopping like this was for the most part even cheaper than going to a supermarket, where they would sell things like freekeh and buckwheat in teeny little packages in the ‘health food’ aisle.

(Slightly amusing tangent – when I first arrived in Cardiff I rocked up at the Friends of the Earth campaign office thinking it would be like the co-op/cafe in Melbourne. It was not!)

Meanwhile in the UK, I’m not quite sure why, but it seems like bulk aisles in supermarkets and bulk food stores have not really existed until very recently (many opened in just the last year).  People, like Sophie, are opening zero waste stores because they are passionate about helping people to reduce their plastic consumption (which skyrocketed in the public consciousness after Blue Planet II last year). So the price of products at these stores is a bit higher – not because someone is making a huge profit somewhere (in fact ripple is a not-for-profit), but because setting up a small, independent business costs money.

(The price of food is also likely more reflective of its true cost, rather than being artificially manipulated by the big supermarkets, but perhaps that is a topic for another time.)

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I’ve been banging on about this for a while, but since coming to Cardiff I have been searching for places to buy food without packaging. I came across the Plastic Free Pantry a little while ago. They are an online shop that delivers plastic-free foods (like grains, legumes, spices) and other products all over the UK. You can also send them your bags and containers to fill, which is pretty awesome.

I dismissed it at first because ordering food online still seems a bit over the top to me. (Why have someone drive something to your door when you can go for a lovely walk or ride and pick it up yourself?) But also because looking at the prices laid out on their lovely website made me baulk a little. Shopping online means losing some of the experience of shopping in a bulk food store (if you think I am usually excitable, just wait until you see me in a bulk food store, it is like a lolly shop for adults) – and it is easier for the mean, analytical side of my brain to tell me that buying things at four times the price of a supermarket just to save some plastic is silly!

I soon realised that wasn’t particularly sensible because (a) the closest zero waste shop is currently in Crickhowell, and (b) having things delivered can be much less carbon intensive than driving to the shops yourself, because delivery drivers will pack their vans full of other things and also optimise routes to be efficient. But also (c) I can afford to pay a bit extra for my groceries!

I also did some actual cost comparisons and realised that for some things the price difference wasn’t actually that great anyway. I have shared that comparison below, because Plastic Free Pantry deliver all over the UK so it might be handy for anyone else living without a local bulk food store (it also includes a comparison for purchasing milk in glass bottles from Milk&More).

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Comparison of the cost of purchasing plastic-free food compared with food at a typical supermarket (I chose Tesco because it turns out their online site is quite easy to use). Most of the prices are on a per kilogram basis, except those items with a * (cocoa is per 250g, tea and spices are per 100g, milk and yogurt are per pint).
As many others have pointed out, money is not the only privilege that enables me to pursue a zero waste lifestyle. While I work full time, I’m able to gad about after work on the weekends to shop at different markets and spend as much time as I like making quince paste, yogurt, biscuits and hummus from scratch. The graph above shows the cost of the ingredients for making yogurt from milk in glass bottles at less than a plastic tub of yogurt, but it takes me quite a while standing over a pot with a thermometer to make it (which I don’t usually mind, I’ll just switch on a podcast and probably multitask with some other cooking, but with the brilliant weather recently I have prioritised spending time outside). Not everyone has this luxury!

​I am lucky that I can choose to spend my money (and the time and energy it represents) supporting independent and local businesses like ripple and the Plastic Free Pantry. For the most part, living sustainably tends to go hand in hand with consuming less, and therefore spending less. So when I can, I’ll continue to happily spend the money that I save in other areas to buy groceries and other life essentials from wonderful businesses that exist to help people live more ethically and sustainably.

Related reading and resources

Some fabulous initiatives have been set up that help tackle the massive issue of food waste while helping make food accessible to all:

  • The Inconvenience Store recently opened in Thornbury (Melbourne), brought to us by the people behind Lentil As Anything. It takes the classic Lentil pay-as-you-can philosophy and applies it to groceries. The groceries are rescued or donated, and money that people are able to pay goes towards running costs like refrigeration and transport.
  • I was busy being gutted that I couldn’t visit the Inconvenience Store when I found out there is a community food fridge right here in Cardiff! It is located at the Cathays Community Centre and open for everyone to take what they need and leave what they don’t.
  • Cardiff seems to have been hit with a bunch of posters advertising Olio, an app which connects people to neighbours and local shops that have excess food. Hopefully that means that people will start to use it, when I tried using it in Australia over a year ago the closest food on there was in Romania…awkward!
  • Too Good To Go is another app fighting food waste, which allows people to buy discounted food at the end of the day from restaurants and other food outlets. You don’t necessarily know what you are going to get, but based on some of the places participating in Cardiff it’s going to be good!

Privilege in the zero waste movement has been a recurring topic over the last few years, here are some thoughtful articles that tackle it better than I can:

  • This post on Paris To Go was the first one I read on the topic a few years ago, and this more recent post is also a brutally insightful must-read.
  • For pretty balanced view of the whole straw issue, read this article. I’m all for reducing plastic waste but it can’t come at the cost of making eating out less accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Model4greenliving also considers the privilege of time in this post, as well as putting together a sensible list of things that everyone can do and ways that we can use our privilege to create an inclusive movement.
  • Meanwhile this one on Treading My Own Path also wisely contends that it is how we use our privilege that counts.
  • I’m going to keep linking to this post on Ethical Unicorn about intersectionality because it is so important. The message is bigger than zero waste too!
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