Zero to hero: the affordability of a zero-waste lifestyle

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By Molly Pipe, First Year Politics and Social Policy

Zero-waste stores are going mainstream, with more than 100 having opened in the UK over the past two and a half years. But shopping this way is often seen as unaffordable - so can you do it on a budget?

One Wednesday, I walk into the Multi-faith Chaplaincy to find an unexpected scene. The kitchen has been taken over by bags of grains, a cotton sign has been hung over the counter, and students are weighing up pots of ingredients. I’m surprised to have suddenly found myself in zero-waste wonderland. It’s often like that, Elizabeth ­Wilde tells me. ‘We get people coming in and they say, “Oh, what’s this?” Or, “I’d heard about you, but I had no idea what you did.”’ The ‘you’ in the picture is the Hungry Caterpillar Co-op. It’s a pop-up store, run by students, that sells unpackaged goods for a fraction of the price of most zero-waste shops. They’re there every week in term time and have been around for ten years - yet it seems that this is one of Bristol’s best-kept secrets.

It’s a pop-up store, run by students, that sells unpackaged goods for a fraction of the price of most zero-waste shops.

It’s a shame that hardly anyone comes in here, Elizabeth confides in me the first time I visit – and I can’t help feeling I agree. As President of the society, ­­Lea, tells me, the prices are lower than you’d get in any commercial zero-waste shop – and even lower than in some supermarkets. ‘Because we buy in bulk we get it quite cheap,’ she says. ‘So our big grains are always going to be cheaper than normal supermarket price. Even though our products are organic, they’re going to be cheaper than the cheapest thing [there].’

This affordability is a major plus for students. One, who has come in especially, tells me that it’s a much more accessible way to shop sustainably. ‘There are so many [of these kind of shops] in Bristol – but they’re all really expensive,’ she says. Here, however, products are sold for the same price at which they’re bought from the suppliers - ‘which is really cool’. Cool it may be, but it does raise a wider issue. When I ask Lea about the society’s business model, she tells me that they’d have no hope of raising a profit with what they are doing. With no staff to pay, and no rent to keep up with, it’s easy to see how they can sell oats for 75p/kg and chuck in a kilo of rice for an extra £1.13. But does this mean that for-profit zero-waste shops are only available for those with money?

Yes and no, says Grant Mercer. We’ve crossed the road now to Smaller Footprints, a Clifton zero-waste shop which will celebrate its first birthday the day after I visit. Ex-Civil Servant Grant, who quit his job to open up this place, is showing me around the premises. According to him, affordability really depends on what you’re buying ‘there are sections which are cheaper,’ he says, pointing out the dried fruit, herbs and nuts. ‘Our sunflower seeds are more than 10% cheaper than Sainsbury’s, and ours are organic. But the areas where we don’t do so well are pasta and grains.’ He gestures to the ‘22p/100g’ labels on the pasta containers. ‘One way to look at it is that you’re not going to spend that much on pasta anyway, so in terms of total outgoings’ he calculates ‘you could be spending five to ten pounds more over the course of a year to save on all that plastic.’

Affordability really depends on what you’re buying

Not all the price tags differ by a matter of pennies from the supermarket price. Reusable make-up wipes cost £14.90 for a bag of 12 (they’re £1 for 25 in Boots), and a razor with five double-sided blades is £11.90 (£9.90 more than its Tesco equivalent). But as Grant says, when you look beyond the initial cost, many of these products work out cheaper in the long run. Like this, he says, showing me a £16 bottle of mouthwash pills. ‘There are seven hundred and twenty [tablets] in there. If you use one a day it will last you for two years.’ The shampoo bars tell a similar story. At £5 a piece, they look expensive, but you can typically get 50-75 washes out of each bar, which is two to three times the number you’d get from a bottle.

Some examples of more sustainable products on offer at Smaller Footprints

It’s not a downright haven for budget shoppers, but there are certainly cheaper-than-supermarket products to be found in Smaller Footprints. Back over the road with Lea and Elizabeth, I ask whether zero-waste shops could price-match like that consistently. ‘If you did it on the scale of a supermarket, possibly,’ Lea says, but both are troubled by the challenges this might face. ‘I just think that supermarkets have the wrong attitude,’ Elizabeth says, when I ask her whether we could see a zero-waste Aldi or Morrisons. ‘They’re just choosing to make a profit, because what’s in it for them?’ Then there are the issues around logistics: ‘If you pack something in plastic it costs a lot less to ship it than with jars, because it’s costed by weight.’

It’s not a downright haven for budget shoppers, but there are certainly cheaper-than-supermarket products to be found in Smaller Footprints.

There are signs that supermarkets are beginning to make changes on plastic. The UK Plastic Pact of 2018, for example, which saw Tesco and others promising to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. But these shows of commitment often have less bearing when you dig beneath the surface. As Lea says, ‘Recyclable is a very easy scapegoat,’ and as for the compostable packaging, ‘most of it doesn’t actually work outside of city composting facilities, so you need professional facilities for it to have any effect.’

As the casual observer, I tell them, I’ve often felt that people who consider themselves ‘normal’ are put off by the hipster image of zero-waste. Grant had been surprised when I said this to him – even a little outraged. ‘I really don’t understand how it’s hipster,’ he said. ‘[It’s] a very logical thing to do when you look at what we’re doing to the planet.’ But Lea and Elizabeth get where I’m coming from. ‘It has that image, I don’t think rightfully so,’ Lea says. ‘But there are enough people that come in with washed-out takeaway containers, and lots that do it because of the price. They all care the environment, but I think that that is not to everyone the biggest selling point.’

‘[It’s] a very logical thing to do when you look at what we’re doing to the planet.’

The two laugh about the excessive use of ‘pretty glass jars’ in many shops, which Lea admits, ‘I’m definitely guilty of – I love my pretty glass jars.’ But the resolute feeling among them is that this image shouldn’t be allowed to detract from what they are actually doing. ‘We’re providing a service,’ Elizabeth says. ‘This should replace your Sainsbury’s shop. And you can tart it up if you like – fine, don’t care about that – but [we need to show that it’s] functional.’ And in Lea’s words, ‘It’s not to look pretty, it’s not a ‘lifestyle’ choice. It’s an environmental choice.

Featured image: Molly Pipe/Epigram

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