Is Bulk Refill The Solution to Zero Waste Shopping?

“Original Unverpackt” was one of the first supermarkets in Germany to sell products without disposable packaging. Meanwhile there are more than 20 such stores in Germany – not only in big cities, but also in smaller ones such as Schwäbisch Gmünd. Their supply chain from producer to consumer is guided by a zero-waste philosophy. We talked with the founder Milena Glimbovski about the challenges of such a business model and the zero-waste lifestyle.

Milena, in your store, people have to pump the shampoo or cold cream into their own containers or fill the pasta and muesli into glasses. Don’t your customers find that strenuous?

No, not at all. Most of them think it's fun. Everyone can purchase rice or nuts precisely in the quantity he or she needs. And it's not a problem when they spill something. What they appreciate about our store is the personal atmosphere of an old-fashioned corner shop and therefore it is not a problem if the weighing at the till takes a little longer. And the customers are really inventive when it comes to the containers: they use Pringles boxes for spaghetti and the nuts or pasta are occasionally also filled into a bonnet. Our regular customers usually bring their own containers. Many of them search their grandma’s attic for containers and bring the most beautiful tins.

The customers are really inventive when it comes to the containers: they use Pringles boxes for spaghetti and the nuts or pasta are occasionally also filled into a bonnet.

Milena Glimbovski

Who are your customers?

People who like living in a big city, but who resent all that plastic and useless packaging in the supermarkets. Frequently, our customers are young mothers with their children who attach importance to an environmentally compatible lifestyle. We also have many singles as customers who can buy exactly the quantities they need for their meals in our store. All our customers enjoy cooking because we don’t offer convenience food for the microwave. Our store is also frequented by tourists - most of them have heard about us and come to take pictures of everything.

Your assortment has grown from 350 to 600 products and not everything is sold without packaging. What are the challenges when ordering products?

This is also an experiment for the manufacturers. At the beginning, it was difficult to offer cosmetics. Now we have found a laboratory in Berlin that supplies us with all the products we need: from toothbrush tabs to bulk container shampoos all the way to unpacked soap. The creative input for the containers was by the way provided by Berlin-based designers. They developed the stylish stations where customers can now fill their containers with cleaning agents. One tofu producer was the first to supply us with products in returnable glass containers.

 

You don't sell meat for ideological reasons. Are there any products that you would like to include in your assortment but cannot offer?

Unfortunately, we cannot offer olive oil because it is not permitted in the EU to sell bulk olive oil without additives. It was not easy to find producers for tomato puree and soybean milk because these products must be offered in large returnable containers or as unpacked bulk products in large quantities. The producers then have to change their production process which leads to extra costs that in turn make the product more expensive. We are currently looking to solve this problem.

But in your store bread is also sold in bags...

Yes, we do make exceptions. We don't want to scare away the people. Also, most of them simply don't want to give up bananas or citrus fruits which is why we have them in our assortment. Wherever possible, we offer products without packaging, organic and from regional sources.

Some supermarkets have meanwhile also stopped offering plastic bags. Do you think this is purposeful?

Replacing plastic by paper is a good start, but this step alone is not sufficient - not least because the lifecycle assessment of paper bags is not much better than that of plastic bags.

What do you think of compostable bags?

For me, this is the biggest lie of modern times. Especially when it comes to bioplastics. Most people do not dispose compostable bags or bioplastic bags in the correct waste bins. If they end up in the organic waste bin, they often don't find the right temperature or bacteria. The most adequate solution are cloth bags. And where this is not possible, the golden rule is to opt for returnable solutions, for more stable and long-lived bags.

Do you get feedback from the packaging industry?

Not directly. But recently we had visitors from Nespresso. This is our big enemy in terms of packaging. We certainly welcomed the employees with pleasure and introduced them to our concept while hoping for something to change also at Nespresso.

 

Original Unverpackt

For two years Milena Glimbovski has been working with a team to make her dream of plastic-free and unpacked shopping come true. In addition to the job and studies, the business plan was written, a supplier network set up and the financing realised through a crowdfunding campaign. In 2014 the store "Original Unverpackt" was opened in Berlin Kreuzberg. In addition, Milena Glimbosvski also gives lectures on sustainability and trends in retail, zero waste and entrepreneurship.

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