Green Living: Local markets ditch the plastic for bulk and reusable containers in Vancouver

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      It’s 10 a.m. on a murky, rainy Thursday and the Soap Dispensary & Kitchen Staples (3718 Main Street) has just unlocked its doors. Already, folks are trickling in with armfuls of empty jars and containers, the glass and worn plastics clinking together as they’re carried to the drop-off counter in reusable boxes and bags. On the Soap side, they’ll be replenished with liquid soaps, shampoos, and other cleaners—and in the Kitchen department, edible goods—before they’re returned to their owners to be used or savoured sans the single-use packaging that often comes with shopping at a big-name grocer.

      It’s a routine that many Vancouverites have come to know well: return, refill, and reuse. And if the Soap Dispensary’s recent expansion to include bulk food items like locally produced pickles, perogies, and fermented cashew dips is any indication, it’s an increasingly common lifestyle that the Riley Park outpost is happy to cater to.

      “People have been wanting to see more zero-waste food, packaging-free food,” Soap Dispensary & Kitchen Staples co-owner Linh Truong tells the Straight during an interview at the shop. “It’s the biggest sort of industry for generating waste, you know?”

      Truong isn’t wrong: according to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, households across the country sent a staggering 9.9 million tonnes of trash—much of it disposables from our convenience-driven food culture—to landfills in 2014. And though citizens have made a concerted effort to recycle and compost, the number doesn’t bode well for our oceans, wildlife, and environment given that it’s surged steadily over a period of six years. These growing mountains of garbage—some of it not biodegradable—pose significant challenges to our climate and health, among other things.

      Purchasing sustainable, low-impact products, then, is one method to combat throwaway culture. And though the Soap Dispen­sary has been going gangbusters since its launch in 2011—diverting more than 170,000 receptacles from the trash—it’s not the only place helping to pave the road to a greener future.

      Main Street's Balance Botanicals carries bulk spices like tumeric root, Szechuan pepper, and Herbes de Provence.
      Balance Botanicals

      Organic grocers such as Choices Markets and even big-box supermarkets have long stocked nuts, sugars, flours, and other dried edibles in bulk. (Not all of them, however, allow customers to bring their own containers.) Butchers such as Windsor Quality Meats serve up cuts of free-range beef, pork, and chicken in provided vessels if you ask nicely, and like the Soap Dispensary, the now defunct Basic Refill offered a selection of natural cleaners, personal-care products, and DIY ingredients.

      With the introduction of Kitchen Staples, however, Truong is aiming to fill a gap in the city’s zero-waste community by selling hard-to-find packaging-free foods like cold-pressed nut milk, Greek yogurt, and fresh salsa—all of which is organic and regionally sourced. The shop works with its suppliers to ensure that the stock arrives responsibly in reusable vessels, too. “We do this sort of closed-loop, return-container cycle, which is what we do with our soaps,” explains Truong.

      Not far off, Balance Botanicals (4341 Main Street) has also carved its own niche in Vancouver’s eco-friendly scene. Founded as an extension of the nearby Balance Acupuncture & Massage clinic in 2015, the store sells a large array of medicinal herbs, teas, and spices in bulk, plus body-care items, dried fruit, kitchen utensils, and other goods. Owner Shinobu Hata says she opened the Earth- and health-minded shop after being fed up with the plastics and unnecessary wrappings she was seeing around her.

      “I’m from Japan, and it is worse [there], actually,” she tells the Straight by phone. “Everything is overly packaged.”

      After two years of successful pop-up shops around town, Nada—formerly known as Zero Waste Market—is slated to open its first brick-and-mortar shop in 2018.

      Both Truong and Hata relay that they’ve seen their clientele multiply in recent years, thanks in part to the public becoming more educated about waste and the threats facing our environment. Considering Vancouver’s green reputation, it’s not surprising that locals have embraced this way of living. “We are seeing a lot more people coming in and bringing their own containers,” says Truong, “and refilling and coming back.”

      Perhaps the biggest sign that Vancouverites are engaging with sustainable consumption practices more than ever is the support behind another zero-waste concept: the soon-to-open Nada. After two years of successful pop-up shops offering granola, coffee, chocolate, and other foods in bulk, founder and CEO Brianne Miller and her team launched a crowdfunding campaign this month to help outfit a Mount Pleasant space they’ve secured for a permanent brick-and-mortar location (675 East Broadway). The group reached its target of $25,000 in less than 24 hours.

      “We had no doubt that we would fund it over, like, a month’s period,” Miller says by phone. “But having a good chunk of it funded in the first hours was a little crazy.”

      Nada has now stretched its goal to $40,000 with the hope of constructing an in-house snack-and-smoothie bar that makes use of surplus produce. (It’s on track to smash that objective, too.) Once the packaging-free market opens in the spring of 2018, it will include sections dedicated to seasonal fruits and veggies, dry goods, edible liquids, cleaners, and pet food, among other products.

      Similar to the Soap Dispensary and Balance Botanicals, the store will have reusable jars available for rent and purchase and stock stainless-steel straws, upcycled produce bags, and other eco-friendly items that make low-impact living a little easier. After all, if plastic- and packaging-free habits continue to gain steam, Vancouverites will need them. “It’s arrived,” states Truong. “Mainstream media is talking about zero waste; city planners are planning projects around zero waste. It’s an exciting time.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.