Will A Zero-Packaging Concept Succeed?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 30, 2011
No doubt about it: Austin, Texas is a forward-thinking community when it comes to environmentalism. Mega-natural retailer Whole Foods was born there. So was the Wheatsville Food Co-op. Colorado's Natural Grocers has found a home there too.

Now, it seems, three brothers in Austin want to up the ante on clean and green. They have formed an LLC called the Brothers Lane with a new business model in mind. They're planning to become the first package-free, zero-waste food retailer in the country. The vision? To go farther than any retailer has; to sell every product in bulk. Customers will simply bring in their own containers from home and fill them. Will this idea get off the ground? If it does, will it be a viable retail model?

The concept isn't new. Bulk foods are sold in every natural product retailer in America. Commodities like nuts, dried fruits, legumes and grains are scooped into individual plastic bags, sealed, weighed and priced per pound. Bulk foods were in stores for a long time before packaged products appeared. Then, products and brands exploded as well as populations to purchase them and a new problem popped up: massive amounts of packaging ended up in the waste stream, filling up landfills.



In response, manufacturers have been whittling away at extraneous packaging. Wal-Mart launched its "Packaging Scorecard" late in 2006, pressuring over 66,000 suppliers to reduce packaging. This move has had profound ramifications across the entire consumer product industry. Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Unilever are among a host of other product companies that pledged to cut waste in all phases of their business operations, including consumer packaging in a measurable, transparent manner. They're doing it.

There has been a steady reduction in the amount of plastic and paperboard being used. Result? Lighter, often smaller packaging that requires fewer truckloads to get to market -- saving money, precious natural resources and fuel costs. Not to mention cutting carbon emissions. Even with these efforts, 29 million tons of packaging waste hits U.S. landfills annually, according to some estimates; almost 12% of that comes from plastics that are not recycled.

While zero packaging might seem like a good idea, let's remember the reasons that packaging appeared in the first place -- and it wasn't about creating a new marketing platform. Are the ideas that made packaging viable still meaningful, or have cultural shifts made it expendable?

Why continue to package?

• To protect the integrity of products so they don't degrade and lose nutritional value quickly.

• To prevent food spoilage.

• To prevent handling of raw products and the transference of bacteria and viruses.

• To ensure safety by not allowing the transference of germs in the atmosphere and from other customers.

• To prevent merchandise from getting "shop worn" and less saleable.

• To ensure freshness.

• To prevent possible contamination from containers consumers think are clean and place foodstuffs into to take home.

• To prevent tampering.

• To ensure traceability and transparency: retailers and consumers alike should know which brand of product they are purchasing and where it came from.

• Consumers need the assurance of quality and recourse if a tainted food issue occurs.

There's another concern: will a "no packaging" policy lead to lawsuits? Stores filled with unbranded bulk products might lead to more taint (or perceptions of it.) Will that lead to lawsuits if consumers become ill? Especially if testing of products yields evidence of harmful bacteria?

Given all of these factors, "Is no packaging for all food products the right way to go?" It's easy to passionately embrace an idea that's a cultural hot-button issue. It's equally important to stand back and look at things rationally.

Rather than zero packaging, how about continuing to do these things:

• Cut down on extraneous packaging.

• Recycle as much packaging as possible, cutting down dramatically on the manufacture and use of virgin materials.

• Design packaging that can be repurposed or reused.

• Continue to find new biodegradable materials from renewable sources.

It seems to me that doing these things will give us the best of both worlds: Highly functional packaging; viable, safe, fresh products, and measurably less packaging material in landfills as time goes on.

4 comments about "Will A Zero-Packaging Concept Succeed? ".
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  1. Michael Strassman from WGBH, September 30, 2011 at 11:04 a.m.

    In terms of health and practicality, the objections are looking a little weak...the threats to food quality cited here all apply to produce and meat/poultry/fish, all of which are sold sans packaging. Most bulk items are easily stored at home in jars and bags to retain freshness (hell, I transfer many things from boxes into vacuum jars to increase shelf-life). Foods that are vulnerable to bulk storage and handling would be center-of-the-store...the least healthy foods (with exceptions) in the store. So, really, much of the objection is to giving up a lot of processed foods...something that would improve most people's health and threaten the processed food industry. Sounds good to me.

  2. Michael Strassman from WGBH, September 30, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.

    regarding branding and transparency, there's no reason you couldn't brand bulk products by simply branding the bulk containers. Consumers would still be able to see and buy branded products (perhaps fewer b/c of space constraints); they just wouldn't be bringing the packaging home with them.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 30, 2011 at 2:25 p.m.

    Larger packages of food and drink saves packaging costs and lower consumer costs. Buying smaller cans of soda = higher cost per ounce and more packaging - Who profits ? Some frozen meals have 3 layers of packaging. Who profits ? Plastic comes from oil. Just a few examples.

  4. Joann Hines from PackagingDiva.com, October 3, 2011 at 12:37 p.m.

    It’s common knowledge that the zero packaging movement is getting considerable traction. Companies are seriously looking for ways to resolve the consumers of dissatisfaction over excess or too much product packaging.

    Although many companies are trying to come up with eco friendly packaging alternatives such as no packaging the answer may not be just to have a “greener” or no package but to reconfigure the packaging purpose altogether.

    The key is to think about packaging differently. Its not going away as so many people would like to suggest. Packaging has a job to do and considering how few problems we have with products, packaging IS performing as intended.

    However you package your products think creatively about the packaging. Can it see another life as something else or is it just something going into the trash. As brands struggle for differentiation one way might be to create packaging that keeps on giving long after the product is gone.

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