Including what they are, why they're important, how packaging impacts food waste & more

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What is a Zero-Waste Store?

You may be wondering what actually qualifies as a Zero Waste Store. They tend to be independent shops which sell food either unpackaged or with minimal packaging. Groceries are (usually) the main focus, where you are required to bring your own container to refill your stocks of rice, pasta, nuts etc. However most zero-waste stores also now offer refills of other items such as household cleaning products: laundry detergent, washing up liquid, soap etc.

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Many view this as a modern way of doing something older generations were doing years ago. In many of our parents’ generations, there was a real emphasis on reducing as much waste as possible, of buying things really mindfully and of taking care of items to ensure their longevity. This seems far-off from the culture of throwaway and convenience so many of us are used to now.

Zero-waste shops are a dash at turning back the clocks with a modern twist. Their focus is on helping customers to think more deeply about their consuming habits and help them make positive changes. Since COVID 19, many zero-waste stores even offer click & collect or delivery services now to try and make shopping more sustainably more accessible.

Why are Zero-Waste Stores Important?

a woman is zero-waste shopping at a zero-waste store
  • They support local products, craftspeople, business owners & makers
  • They tend to be community minded with community events, social justice projects and empowerment plans
  • These shops are better at building relationships with customers – more of a personalised experience
  • They reduce food waste. When you buy/weigh ingredients yourself you can get exactly what you need, rather than having to buy the set amount offered by a supermarket in their packaging. For instance, if you only need a teaspoon of a certain spice for a recipe you could just buy a few grams from your zero-waste store rather than spending lots of money on something you may never use. This saves your money, and cuts food waste.
products in store at a zero-waste shop. available for you to weigh and help yourself and stored in 'hoppers'.
  • They reduce packaging. Many things aren’t sold individually wrapped and/or are available in bulk. Buying in bulk can also mean you stock up for weeks/months in one go and save yourself more trips to and from the shops! (Saving you time and cutting carbon emissions if you drive etc).
  • Zero-waste stores tend to offer healthy and nutritious food and perhaps less processed stuff.
  • They customers to create positive habits and think about things differently.
plastic-free grocery shopping in reusable bags

What is the problem with recycling?

Trying to live zero-waste is important, as it is becoming clearer that recycling cannot keep up with the demand.

Masefield, owner of the first zero-waste shop in Wales, says “Calling it recycling is disingenuous,” he says. “It should really be called downcycling because you can’t retain the same quality of plastic unless you introduce virgin materials to retain that quality.” A recent study has also found that recycling can release a giant number of microplastics into the environment.

a blue recycling bin
Rather than just relying on recycling we should be aiming to reduce and reuse.

Food Packaging & Plastic Waste

Many make the case that single use plastic protects food and keeps it fresher for longer. This is not only vital for busy individuals and families but also prevents food waste.

However, it is not quite as simple as this. Plastic packaging often demands a very specific shape and size for fruit and veg. Think for example of pears – these often come lying snug in a sort of bed cavity and coated in plastic. If a pear was too wide, small, wonky etc to fit into this space – then it will be discarded. This leads to food waste.


As mentioned earlier, packaging can also force you to buy more than you need. We’ve all been there when we only need 1 red pepper for a recipe but our only option is to buy a pack of 3 (which then end up going mouldy). Buying plastic (and package!) free allows us to buy exactly what we need, reducing waste.

It is important to note however that some plastic/packaging is extremely beneficial. For example, pre-cut and diced fruit and vegetables can be really helpful for people with certain conditions in order to make cooking easier and more accessible.

Other types of Zero Waste Stores

It is also important to note that shops might be encouraging a zero-waste lifestyle without explicitly calling themselves ‘zero-waste’ stores. For example, charity-shops play a part in zero-waste as they keep clothes and other items in circularity and encourage second-hand buying. (Although this is contentious as a huge amount of second-hand clothing is still shipped to other countries from charity shops and simply sends our waste problem to another country to deal with).


Other examples are repair shops (such as bike shops) which will fix your items and extend their life, encouraging you to keep your items and care for them rather than simply throwing it away and buying new. Local tailors and seamstresses perform a similar function – altering your clothes to adapt to your changing shape, style or size to discourage throwaway and constant buying of ‘new’.

Final Thoughts

It is important to say that a lot of these independently owned zero waste stores are struggling right now. In the cost-of-living crisis, so many small businesses are feeling the hit. If you are able to support your local zero-waste in some capacity, then it really does make a huge difference. One sale at a local zero-waste will almost definitely put a smile on the owner’s face (or maybe a happy dance). We can vote with our money, or vote with our feet, and by supporting the businesses with big hearts, doing really good stuff – we are voting for the kind of world we want to see. We are putting our weight behind hope, and quietly standing tall as activists through the most mundane of activities – grocery shopping!

different products on sale at a zero waste store

It is rebellious to consume this way.

Brands and large corporations want us to constantly be buying new – of course they do! – it ensures survival of their business and more cash in their pockets. By repairing, reusing, upcycling, altering, amending – we are choosing longevity over throwaway and showing respect and care towards our items and the people who originally made them. We are asking less of Mother Earth and her natural resources, and probably saving ourselves a penny or two as well.

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