Tens of millions of tons of plastic is tossed into landfills across the U.S. every year – some because it can’t be recycled and others that were just thrown straight into the trash. A growing movement in Europe to do away with packaging before shoppers even step into the store is beginning to trickle into America, with the latest market opening in Garden City.
Walking into Roots Zero Waste Market feels like stepping into a perfectly curated, eco-conscious Pinterest board.
You’re immediately hit with herbal scents from the in-store apothecary, Vervain, that’s run separately from the market. Just a few steps away is Roots’ personal care section stocked with shampoo bars, tooth powder and bulk cleaning supplies.
Then, of course, you have the grocery section.
Silver tankards of oil and vinegar are ready for the pouring and grains, spices and nuts are neatly arranged in glass jars lining the back wall.
“Everything’s non-GMO, organic," says Lea Rainey, one of the co-owners of Roots. "Almost everything that we have and our grain, our nuts, is grown in the northwest or northern California. We can literally track back everything that we have to a farmer."
Shoppers can buy glass jars or muslin bags to hold their groceries at the store, or they can bring their own. Scales are strategically placed across the store to weigh your container, which then gets deducted at the register.
Rainey says she stocked the market with everything she might need in a 24-hour period.
“I need to wash dishes probably, I might need to do some laundry, I’m washing my hair, I’m washing my body, I’m brushing my teeth … We really sourced all those things for what you need to just live,” she says.
Rainey previously worked for Hewlett Packard and never intended to delve into the grocery industry. But she and co-owner Zach Yunker began noticing just how much plastic they were collecting.
“It was really frustrating because I always felt like it was my problem to deal with," Rainey says.
Packaging made up more than 20% of all landfill trash in 2015 with the majority being plastic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
So instead of offering up individual, Instagram-worthy strawberries nestled inside a Styrofoam cover on a bed of faux-hay – I’m looking at you, Hong Kong – Rainey went the opposite way.
Roots is one of just seven standalone, zero-waste stores in the U.S., according to Bepakt, a Dutch website that tracks the industry.
Opening day was packed. Rainey says more than 1,000 people filtered through the store.
Sarah Ross was one of them. She had biked to the store that morning with her family. “I was really excited to see it here in Boise. I think it’s an awesome development for our community."
Her husband, Jesse, who’s a teacher, was also excited. Earlier that week, he had marched with some of his students as part of the global climate protests.
“We were putting voice to what we want to do and then to have options in the community that allow you to follow through on those commitments,” he said.
But there can be environmental pitfalls with zero-waste markets, too.
“Package-free is not always the same as impact-free,” says Lewis Akenji, the executive director of SEED, a group founded by the United Nations to promote a green economy.
Stocking local and seasonal products and cutting out packaging from suppliers are key ways to lower a store’s carbon footprint – all things Roots market does.
But being a conscious consumer is more complex than that. For example, a cucumber wrapped in plastic can extend its shelf life and prevent it from being chucked in the trash.
Akenji says sometimes more energy goes into growing and transporting the food that’s eventually spoiled than goes into the packaging it comes in.
“But we do not have systems that can manage this very carefully and this is what we should be looking into rather than oversimplifying the discussion around the dangers of plastic.”
That said, Akenji is supportive of zero-waste stores. He says they can put pressure on the big chains that make up most of the U.S. grocery market – and help change the habits of convenience and consumption-hungry shoppers.
“The possibility of consuming doesn’t necessarily mean that you should actualize it and you should only actualize it when it’s needed and useful to you – and when it’s bringing benefits not just to you as an individual, but to the broader society," says Akenji.
And that’s part of the mission Rainey, the co-owner of Roots, is putting together.
“The more stores that are like us, the better – the more impact we can have,” she says.
She wants to expand the store, open more locations and grow into neighborhoods that might get overlooked. But for now, she’s focused on establishing Roots as a community anchor for years to come.
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