A sustainable S’pore? More zero-waste stores are popping up

Single-use plastics are highly useful, especially in a densely populated Singapore, where they’re used mainly for hygiene purposes. This is especially so for groceries in supermarkets, where fruit and vegetables are often packaged in plastics, while fish and meat are sealed with cling wrap. 

These plastics are said to ensure food safety and quality by reducing damage and cross-contamination. Many suppliers also pre-package them to reduce the chances of them getting damaged, and thus wasted, during transit.  

However, even though it maintains cleanliness and reduces food wastage in that aspect, the use of single-use plastics remains highly detrimental to the environment. Moreover, since supermarkets carry pre-weighed and pre-packaged goods of set weights and amounts, more wastage can be produced if consumers end up purchasing more than they need. 

Supermarket produce wrapped in single-use plastics / Image credit: Nestia

In 2018, Singapore produced a total of 1.6 million tonnes of domestic waste, with one-third of it being packaging. Food waste is also one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore, and it has been growing by 20 per cent over the last 10 years.   

If food items “need” to be wrapped in plastic, how then, can Singapore move towards sustainability and address both food and packaging waste?

A possible solution that allows for both hygiene and sustainability, are zero-waste grocery stores. They mainly operate by offering produce and food items in bulk where consumers can purchase however much of the product they need, with no use of single-use plastics. 

“[Z]ero-waste grocery shopping could potentially address the environmental drawbacks of conventional supermarkets, offering a more sustainable and environmentally friendly solution for our livelihoods.”

– Florence Tay, founder of Unpackt

Taking home only what you need

Considering the transnational nature of the effects of climate change, zero-waste shopping is “important everywhere”, emphasises Amy Kirk, co-founder of Australian zero-waste grocery store Scoop WholeFoods, which was established in Singapore in May 2019.

Sharing the same sentiment, Florence of Unpackt advocates that “[b]y shopping zero-waste in Singapore, we purchase just the quantity of food we need without creating food and packaging waste”, essentially benefitting Singapore in the long run, considering the lack of space for more landfills. 

Zero-waste stores function much more differently from your typical supermarkets from the products they offer to the way in which they are displayed.

For example, Scoop WholeFoods offers a large variety of chemical free, organic whole-food products that run the gamut — from grains and pastas, to chocolates and fermented drinks on tap. They also carry sustainable homeware products, chemical-free toiletries, household cleaning products and have an organic bakery in their Great World City outlet.

However, unlike supermarkets carrying brands that have items wrapped in plastics and other unsustainable packaging materials, the majority of Scoop WholeFood’s products can be purchased in bulk via their bulk bins, which means customers either bring in their own containers or bottles from home or use the packaging like glass jars or cloth bags sold in stores to collect them. 

Scoop WholeFoods
Food items in bulk bins / Image credit: Scoop WholeFoods

Many of our customers come in store with the exact measurements they require for a recipe and leave with exactly that, proving how much you can save in the long run when you buy just what you need.

– Amy Kirk, co-founder of Scoop WholeFoods

According to Amy, ever since Scoop WholeFoods opened its first store in Tanglin Mall in April 2019, approximately 2.5 million plastic bags have been saved from entering Singapore’s waste system. An immeasurable amount of food wastage has also been avoided. 

Unpackt, Singapore’s first zero-waste store that opened in 2018, also aims to encourage consumers to take small steps towards leading a sustainable lifestyle, offering a range of zero-waste lifestyle products and groceries that come in reusable and refillable packaging.

unpackt Zero-waste refillery
Unpackt’s refillery / Image credit: Unpackt

An added benefit is that their products are sourced from local and package free retailers as much as possible, embodying circularity. Some of their retailers like Green Kulture even deliver the products in jerrycans and carton boxes that can be returned and refilled for future deliveries.   

Unpackt also conducts educational programmes such as corporate or school talks, learning journeys and workshops. In addition, it offers corporate gifts and pantry services in hopes of encouraging and advocating consumers to incorporate sustainable living habits in their own ways. 

Unpackt advocating zero-waste
Florence advocating zero-waste / Imade credit: Unpackt

“We have also worked with schools and companies to have a mobile Unpackt service where they can place an order online to click and collect at their school premise or company”, says Florence, adding that this helps make unpackaged products more easily accessible.

Hesitancy towards zero-waste grocery shopping  

Despite the benefits zero-waste grocery stores bring to our environment and health, why do some still purchase from conventional supermarkets?

Florence believes this consumer hesitancy towards zero-waste grocery shopping stems from the perception that it is costly and inconvenient. However, she debunks this claim, highlighting that it is a “common misconception”.

In actual fact, the rise of zero-waste grocery stores allows for greater accessibility and convenience. In terms of cost, many zero-waste stores also offer an affordable selection of produce.

Moreover, Florence believes that leading a sustainable lifestyle doesn’t have to be a hassle; it can be as simple as consuming in moderation instead of consuming excessively. 

Amy, who is also aware that a large part of consumer hesitancy is attributed to the cost factor, shares that Scoop WholeFoods’ variety of food “allows for different price points, where consumers have options to purchase high quality everyday basics, as well as more premium organic artisan made goods”.

This allows consumers to save money while making the right choice of prioritising their health and the planet.

Scoop WholeFoods food items
Scoop WholeFood’s variety of food items / Image credit: Scoop WholeFoods

In fact, Amy shares that one of the biggest draws to their stores is their affordability factor. 

“Being able to purchase just what you need for you and your family allows for significant savings as our customers don’t have to commit to purchasing quantities they don’t need and will most likely end up throwing out”, she says.

But, consumers may find more reassurance knowing that their products are packaged with plastic, which often connotes that food would be fresher and more hygienic as compared to leaving it in bulk bins or mason jars. 

However, zero-waste grocery stores have their own ways of keeping produce fresh — without the use of any plastic. 

For one, Scoop WholeFoods stores are kept at a temperature of 18 degrees at all times, ensuring the utmost freshness and quality of their products. They also make sure that temperatures of the produce are managed for their end-to-end supply chain, with their stock managers having to follow very detailed guidelines on how to look after products in bulk bins.

Moreover, they don’t carry any bulk products with short shelf lives that could go bad easily. “[W]e are very specific when it comes to our product selection”, emphasises Amy. 

Similarly at Unpackt, food items are stored under recommended temperatures and are kept in small containers that are regularly washed and sanitised before being refilled.

Better supporting the zero-waste culture

In order to drive the adoption of zero-waste grocery shopping into our livelihoods, it must first be made even more widely accessible, and that means the introduction of regulations and frameworks.

“[T]he first and most important step is for supermarkets and large grocery stores to immediately cease offering single-use plastic carry bags”, suggests Amy. 

bring your own bag ntuc fairprice
Bring your own bag / Image Credit: NTUC Fairprice

Florence chimes in, noting that even though there are more supermarkets than zero-waste grocery stores in Singapore at the moment, the adoption rates of zero-waste shopping could be driven to higher levels if consumers get more used to practising zero-waste grocery shopping habits like bringing their own bags.

But of course, consumer behaviour would still need to be addressed. Amy feels that suppliers can start by removing all unnecessary plastic packaging from fruits, vegetables, delicatessens, meat et cetera to aid in reducing the reliance on food logistics packaging.

Even though Amy concedes that these are not that straightforward or easy for large supermarkets to implement overnight, she’s optimistic in “see[ing] them provide [consumers] with more opportunities to shop waste-free”.

Zero-waste grocery stores lead the way

The demand for zero-waste grocery stores has been seeing a slow but steady incline, especially with the healthy diets and sustainability being hot topics in recent years.

Statistics from KBV Research also illustrate that the global value of the superfoods market has increased from US$137 billion in 2020 to US$157 billion in 2022, and expected to be valued at US$209 billion by 2026.

Data by Polaris Market Research supports this finding, revealing that the value of the global organic food and beverage market worldwide has had a compound annual growth rate of 13.2 per cent since 2018.

Key indicators of a shift in demand for zero-waste grocery stores in Singapore can also be indicated by the demand for more of such stores to open in more locations around Singapore for increased accessibility. 

Amy, who reminisces about the time Scoop WholeFoods opened the doors to their first store in 2019, shares that they were unsure as to how the response from Singaporeans would be like, since bulk food shopping was still considered a new concept back then. 

“We were humbled to see so many people lining up outside the door of the Tanglin Mall store on opening day and so many carrying their own containers all ready to be refilled. We knew there and then that the people of Singapore were well aware of the challenges our planet is facing and were ready to jump onboard and start their zero-waste journeys,” shares Amy.

Even though changing routines and habits can be tough, Amy feels that once people experience the many benefits of shopping in bulk, they’d be more receptive towards adopting zero-waste shopping habits, especially considering the savings they can make just from buying what they really need.

In fact, it seems that zero-waste shopping has gained much more traction in Singapore since then, with Florence noting that it could be due to the growing awareness of leading sustainable lifestyles.

“[W]e foresee the demand for this service to grow as more and more bulk stores open islandwide,” she affirms.

Jeff Lam and Florence Tay Unpackt
Jeff Lam and Florence Tay, co-founder and founder of Unpackt / Image credit: Unpackt

The introduction of more zero-waste stores that offer both healthier and more eco-conscious food supplies also helps in making “this type of grocery shopping the norm as it gradually becomes part of consumers’ daily habits and therefore [is] no longer considered an alternative way of shopping”, says Amy.

Now, Scoop WholeFoods will be opening their ninth store in Singapore later this year, and plans to continue adapting to the ever-changing and eco-conscious market.

Scoop WholeFoods team
Scoop WholeFoods team / Image credit: Scoop WholeFoods

At the end of the day, even as zero-waste grocery stores become more prevalent in our society, large supermarkets still need to do their part as well to push for more environmentally conscious measures. This is because they can influence positive change at both consumer and supplier levels on a massive scale.  

[I]t is also up to consumers to make more sustainable choices where possible and we believe our stores provide the perfect platform to help them do so. We are all in this together and we must work as a team to protect our environment and overall well being of our planet.

– Amy Kirk, co-founder of Scoop WholeFoods

Featured image credit: Source Bulk Foods Singapore