Waste is unavoidable in most stores. Even bulk food and fresh produce aisles are lined with rolls of thin, sticky plastic bags.
At The Realm Refillery in northeast Portland, however, shopping for food and everyday household items works a little differently.
The wrap-free store, which opened May 20 at 2310 NE Broadway, is one of a handful of new vendors around Portland that specialize in selling food and household items without all the superfluous packaging. The goal is to reduce store supply chain and in-store waste while running a profitable business to meet the needs of environmentally conscious shoppers.
“We try to make it important and a priority to support our local producers and that we can teach people while they shop here that they can eat seasonally and still eat whatever they like. “said Ryan Knowles, co-owner of The Realm Refillery. with his partner Brittany Snipes. “We all need to learn how to reduce our waste and how easy it can be and how affordable buying in bulk can be as well.”
At the Realm Refillery, shoppers can find an impressive array of bulk bins with staples like grains, beans, flours, coffee, tea, vital wheat gluten, and textured vegetable proteins. Consumers can also find snacks like granola, dried fruit, peanut butter pretzels, as well as backpack-dried meals in bulk.
The small produce section offers only locally grown foods that are in season, such as zucchini, cucumbers, garlic scapes, among others. While not completely packageless, the few packaged items — such as the vegan cheese blocks — come in compostable or reusable packaging. The store also offers customers free compostable paper bags or glass jars of various sizes for a $2 deposit that are returned to the store, sanitized and reused.
Knowles said the store is the first of its kind in Oregon to feature a small self-serve section where customers can buy yogurt, vegan parmesan cheese, kimchi or alternative deli slices in bulk.
“We’re the first store in Oregon to be legally allowed to sell what’s 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 perishes.”
One frustration is having to regularly tell shoppers they can’t use their own containers brought from home. That’s because of an Oregon law that prohibits customers from bringing their own food storage containers to shop.
“It was really frustrating for us as business owners because we didn’t want to buy all these jars and then wash all these jars for people,” Knowles said. “And that doesn’t really make sense with the lifestyle, but we really wanted to be able to create that space for our community. So we’re really hoping that we can change the law so that people can bring their own and that we don’t have to buy more glass jars.
The restriction is why many zero-waste stores, like Portland’s two-location business Mama & Hapa’s, have decided to sell only non-food household items.
When Ross Ching opened the first Mama & Hapa zero waste store with his wife Nadia Takla, they wanted to show people that everyone can reuse and recycle everyday household products and body 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 six months later at 3806 N. Mississippi Ave. .
Ching said he and his wife wanted to make zero waste shopping more accessible to the masses.
“Part of the thinking behind zero waste stores in general is that we limit single-use plastic,” he said. “But the biggest problem with these kinds of stores is that they are bulky and expensive.”
Ching said he and his wife identified four goals to fix the experiment.
First, they wanted to be able to provide containers to customers for free. To do this, the store encourages customers to donate containers, preferably glass or sturdy plastic, with a lid.
The second goal was to make in-store shopping transparent and accessible to every customer, which meant eliminating any weighing process. So Ching found a system that would measure the volume coming out of a container. When customers enter Mama & Hapa’s, they take a card with an electronic chip that records the type and volume of product dispensed, go to one of the pumps, hold the empty container under the spout, place the card in support and keep a close eye on the volume when dispensing the product.
They also aim to keep prices close to other grocery stores.
“A lot of other zero-waste stores have this premium mentality where you’re going to get customers to spend more to do good for the environment,” Ching said. “I call it the organic tax or the good-for-the-environment tax, where people have to pay more just to do something good for the environment.”
Finally, Ching said, he wanted to have locations close to customers. He said that’s why he opened two stores just about two miles apart and near where his family lives.
“The idea behind this is that if you have to spend half a gallon of gas to get to our store and get home, then what’s the point of saving a plastic bottle?” Ching said. “Ideally, we’d like everyone in Portland to live within 2-3 miles of stores like Mama & Hapa’s and that way they have no excuse not to go to a zero waste store.”
The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 31% of food is wasted at the retail and consumer level, which translates to approximately £133 billion and $161 billion worth of food.
Other major grocery chains like Kroger Co. have taken steps to reduce its environmental impact and limit the generation of single-use plastic waste. Last year, the company launched a program to test reusable packaging at Fred Meyer stores in the Portland area.
The pilot test with Loop, a zero-waste retail platform that champions sustainability and the circular economy, aims to reduce the amount of single-use packaging. Participating stores have a special Loop area, where customers can purchase packaged pantry staples, household cleaners and other products in reusable containers.
New Seasons Market has also stepped up its efforts to reduce waste by partnering with third-party supplier GO Box to offer reusable containers to consumers.