Garbage is inevitable in most stores. Even the aisles for loose groceries and produce are lined with thin, pliable plastic bags.
Grocery and household shopping at The Realm Refillery in northeast Portland, however, works a little differently.
The packaging-free store, which opened May 20 at 2310 NE Broadway, is one of a handful of new entrants in Portland specializing in selling groceries and household goods without all the excess packaging. The goal is to reduce the stores’ supply chain and in-store waste while running a profitable business to meet the needs of environmentally conscious shoppers.
“We try to give value and priority to supporting our local producers and teaching people when they shop that they can eat seasonally and still eat whatever they like,” said Ryan Knowles, co-owner of The Realm Refillery with partner Brittany snipes “We all need to learn how to reduce our waste and how easy it can be and also how affordable it can be to buy in bulk.”
At the Realm Refillery, shoppers will find an impressive array of storage containers stocked with staples like grains, beans, flour, coffee, tea, essential wheat gluten, and textured vegetable protein. Consumers can also find snack foods such as granola, dried fruit, peanut butter pretzels, and backpacking dry meals in bulk.
The small goods department only offers seasonal groceries from the region, e.g. B. Zucchini, cucumbers, garlic cloves. While not entirely packaging-free, the few packaged items — like vegan blocks of cheese — come in compostable or reusable packaging. The store also offers customers free compostable paper bags or different sizes of jars for a $2 deposit to be returned to the store, sanitized, and reused.
Knowles said the store is the first of its kind in Oregon to offer a small self-service area where customers can buy yogurt, vegan parmesan cheese, kimchi or sliced alternative charcuterie in bulk.
“We’re the first store in Oregon legally allowed to sell so-called ‘time and temperature controlled foods’ in bulk,” he said. “Basically, it’s anything that needs to be refrigerated at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time or it will spoil.”
One frustration is having to routinely tell shoppers they can’t use their own containers they brought from home. That’s because of an Oregon law that prohibits customers from bringing their own food storage containers to buy groceries.
“It was really frustrating for us as business owners because we didn’t want to buy all these glasses and then wash all these glasses for people,” Knowles said. “And it doesn’t really make sense with the lifestyle, but we really wanted to be able to create that space for our community. So we really hope that we can change the law so that people can bring their own and we don’t have to buy glasses anymore.”
The restriction is why many no-waste stores, like Mama & Hapa’s, which has two Portland locations, have decided to only sell non-food household items.
When Ross Ching opened the first Mama & Hapas With his wife Nadia Takla at the Zero Waste store, they wanted to show people that anyone can reuse and recycle everyday household goods and personal care products. The couple opened their first store at Southeast 14th Avenue and Stark Street in May 2021. The business was so well received that they opened a second location at 3806 N. Mississippi Ave six months later.
Ching said he and his wife want to make zero-waste shopping more accessible to the masses.
“Part of the whole thinking behind zero-waste stores in general is that we limit single-use plastic,” he said. “But the biggest problem with these types of deals is that they’re cumbersome and expensive.”
Ching said he and his wife identified four targets to correct the experience.
First, they wanted to be able to provide containers to customers for free. To this end, the store encourages its customers to donate containers with lids, preferably made of glass or durable plastic.
The second goal was to make in-store shopping seamless and accessible to every customer, which meant eliminating any weighing process. So Ching came up with a system that measures the volume coming out of a container. When customers come into Mama & Hapa’s, they take a card with a microchip that records the type and amount of product dispensed, go to one of the dispensers, hold the empty container under the spout, place the card in a holder and keep it Pay attention to the volume when dispensing the product.
They also aim to keep prices in line with other grocery stores.
“A lot of other zero-waste stores have this premium mentality, where they push customers to spend more to do good for the environment,” Ching said. “I call it the eco-tax or the environmental tax, where people have to pay more just to do something good for the environment.”
Eventually, Ching said he wants locations close to customers. He said that’s why he opened two stores just about two miles apart and close to where his family lives.
“The thinking behind it is, if you have to spend half a gallon of gas to get to our store and back home, what’s the point of saving a plastic bottle?” Ching said. “Ideally, we want every Portlander to live 2-3 miles from stores like Mama & Hapa so they have no excuse not to go to a zero-waste store.”
The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 31 percent of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels, equating to approximately £133 billion and $161 billion in food.
Other large grocery chains like Kroger Co. have taken steps to reduce their environmental impact and limit the generation of single-use plastic waste. The company last year began a program to test reusable packaging at Fred Meyer stores in the Portland area.
The pilot test with Ribbon, a zero-waste retail platform committed to sustainability and the circular economy, aims to reduce the amount of single-use packaging. Participating stores have a dedicated Loop section where customers can purchase packaged staples, household cleaning products and other products in reusable containers.
New Seasons Market also has increased its waste reduction efforts by partnering with a third party GO Box to offer consumers reusable containers.