Eating & Drinking

Will we buy into waste-free grocery shopping? Valerie Leloup, owner of the city’s first zero-waste grocery store, thinks so

Valerie Leloup has a conscience. That’s not to imply that everyone else doesn’t, only that her conscience is particularly attuned to how much waste she produces, especially with regard to single-use plastic packaging — that ubiquitous plastic wrap that covers drinking straws and potato chips, fast food and plastic utensils. It’s the stuff we use for a brief moment, then toss into the garbage can, after which it eventually ends up in a landfill for thousands of years. That ratio — the in-use time compared with the amount of time it spends in a garbage dump — weighs heavily on Leloup.

This summer, the single mother of two opened the city’s first zero-waste grocery store — one of a handful in Canada. Inspired by Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home, Leloup is determined to change her life and the lives of others in Ottawa too.

As Leloup explains, the zero-waste approach is freeing yourself from everything you do not need. “You always ask yourself, ‘Do I really need it? Does it really make me happy?’ And if the answer is yes, then you ask yourself, ‘How can I satisfy this need without impacting the environment negatively?’ ”

This process can certainly be applied to grocery shopping, which accounts for much of the weekly waste we produce. But just try escaping the single-use plastic packaging common in most aisles. As Leloup discovered, it’s a Herculean task.
“Practically speaking, grocery shopping was impractical,” she explains about her quest to source bulk-food items that weren’t sold in plastic packaging. “I found places, but they were scattered all around town. I would go to four or five places. … But I’m a busy working mom, and I found myself spending my Saturdays grocery shopping.”

Most places are unaccustomed to customers bringing their own containers. Leloup recalls the funny looks from some purveyors and how she tired of explaining the zero-waste concept over and over. She is a teacher, so sometimes she would say her containers were for a class project on reducing waste.

Exhausted by the cross-city sourcing, Leloup finally said to herself: “Wouldn’t it be great to have a place where I could find everything? But this place would also be designed for zero-waste shopping, a place where you don’t have to explain why you’re bringing your own containers or don’t need a bag.”

This led to her decision to open Nu Grocery, which is dubbed “Your Zero Waste Grocery Store.” It’s a concept based on other zero-waste grocery stores that are opening in Europe and elsewhere in Canada. The soft opening for the store is Saturday, August 12; the grand opening is Saturday, August 19.

Example of an old-timey grocery store. With less packaging and more bulk goods, it's a concept that may be coming back
Example of an old-timey grocery store. With less packaging and more bulk goods, it’s a concept that may be coming back

The new 1,700-square-foot store in Hintonburg offers a “one-stop-shopping experience” where customers are encouraged to bring and fill their own containers from bulk bins filled with products that have been sourced, as much as possible, from local suppliers who subscribe to the zero-waste approach.

Given that this concept is foreign to most consumers, the mind immediately races with questions, which Leloup, in her fast-paced way of talking, is happy to answer.

What if I forget my containers or bags?

“We’ll have paper bags, free, for dry products and glass containers you can borrow for wet materials.”

What about selection?

“There will only be one product. If you want macaroni, there’s one option. Nothing to decide over.”

Will goods cost more?

“If you buy it in bulk, it will be comparable to, or even cheaper than, its packaged equivalent.”

Because customers have to bring their own containers and then weigh them and fill them, will they be spending more time grocery shopping?

“It does require a little bit of preparation, but that in itself is a way to optimize your shopping and make you more efficient. I used to go to the store without any plan, buying stuff I didn’t need and forgetting the stuff I did, which made me waste time.

“When you plan your shopping, you open your cupboard and say, ‘Oh, I need honey — that’s a jar. I need oats, that’s a bag.’ Your containers become your grocery list, and you become much better at inventory management.”

In terms of time spent in the store itself, this next part was a bit of a revelation.

“Yes, [Nu] requires you to weigh your containers, which takes time, and [time] to fill them up, but this is offset by the fact that a zero-waste grocery store is a smaller space — it’s not a box store where you’re pushing your cart, competing with other carts, crossing aisles and aisles of products you don’t want or need.”

Given that Nu focuses on local suppliers, consumers have to realize that some products will be impossible to stock. (You’ll have to go somewhere else for strawberries in December.)

As she explains the concept, one can’t help thinking that this approach would appeal most to singles or childless couples. Research suggests that this concept appeals most to the millenial demographic, according to Leloup — not because this demographic has time to burn, but rather because they are the most open to change and are more conscious of the environment than other generations.

But for zero-waste grocery shopping to really work, it must appeal to more than a single demographic. So what about the family with two working parents and multiple kids?

“All I can say is that we’re a family of three, and we don’t find it difficult,” says Leloup. “You do rationalize your buying, and there are things I don’t buy anymore.” Salad dressing, for example, is so simple to make that she has ditched it from her shopping list.

Given that this model for shopping does require more forethought and may be restrictive in terms of availability and selection, will Ottawans buy into the zero-waste approach?

“It’s a bit of a bet that I’m taking,” says Leloup. “I had a friend in Germany who said to me, ‘You want to open this in Canada — why would Canadians care about waste? You have so much space, you can open another landfill and no one will notice.’ That made me cringe. I don’t think Canadians are like that. … I think the political climate downtown is very [excited] about sustainable projects,” she says, which also explains her decision to open in Hintonburg.

The routine of grocery shopping is practised from our time as infants: we get pushed from aisle to aisle and watch our parents choose from a wall of attractive, brightly packaged food items, which they toss into the cart. It looks like so much fun that we, as kids, play at this (often, ironically, with plastic replicas of the real things). The challenge of modifying our behaviours — no matter how logical, cost-effective, and convenient alternatives may be — is a difficult one.

Crystal Lehky knows exactly how difficult it can be to make an alternative successful. She’s the owner of Green, Canada’s first zero-waste-concept grocery store, which opened on Salt Spring Island, B.C., last year. She learned that even if consumers really want to be waste-free, habits are hard to break. “This early in the waste revolution, it’s still hard for shoppers to keep this top of mind,” says Lehky.

The island has a reputation for being rather pro-earth. In addition to its own hippie residents, the island sees a yearly influx of WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) and other communal, back-to-earth types. And yet, even in this forward-thinking community, Lehky’s zero-waste approach has met challenges. “The major one being our commitment to local and Canadian products. Working with local, small-scale farmers and manufacturers has been tricky. It’s really hit-and-miss with getting products when we need them,” she says.

Other challenges include the use of plastic bins for bulk-food items and the assumption that her unpackaged, prettily presented produce is not more expensive than the same item in regular grocery stores.

“People walk in, and they assume I have boutique pricing. They can’t wrap their heads around how a ‘bouquet’ of kale could cost the same as one from a regular grocery store.”

Encouraging news for Leloup, however, is that there has been a steady increase in traffic to the Salt Spring store and that interest from suppliers has grown.

“I have seen more people have success in changing their grocery shopping habits here. … Over time, demand has gone up, and I think it will keep going up,” says Lehky.

Because of pressure from customers, Bulk Barn announced in February that it will allow customers to bring their own containers. This move may signal a trend in the way consumers want to shop and may indicate that people, including Ottawans, are ready for the zero-waste approach seen at Nu and other stores.

If Nu succeeds, then perhaps that will be a signal that Ottawa is ready for more earth-friendly changes. Other cities have banned plastic bags.

Whaddaya say, mayor?