Estimates suggest that a third of household waste is made up of food packaging. But one business in Austin, Texas, believes it has a solution. Christian Lane is co-founder of in.gredients, the nation’s first package-free and zero waste grocery store. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that customers will bring in their own reusable containers for everything from butter to beer.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
It used to be ‘paper or plastic?’ But these days more and more supermarkets are encouraging customers to bring reusable bags. Now a new Texas company is saying, ‘BYOC’ - bring your own containers.
At the soon-to-be-opened Austin supermarket called
in.gredients , the concept of ‘pre-cycling’ will rule the aisles. Company co-founder Christian Lane joins me - welcome to Living on Earth, Christian!
LANE: Hey, thanks for having me!
GELLERMAN: So ‘pre-cycling’ - I know what recycling is - what’s pre-cycling?
LANE: Well pre-cycling really involves prioritizing those two of the three arrows you see on the recycling logo: reduce and reuse. And when you’re out of utility on any given product, or container, whatever the case is, you then recycle it at that point.
GELLERMAN: So I go to your supermarket - take me through the process.
LANE: Sure, so if it’s your first time coming in, you come in, you bring your containers, and we’re going to help you weigh them and label them. We’ll put a label on it so that way, going forward, those containers that you have don’t have to be re-weighed again. You go through the store, do normal shopping like you do in the bulk sections of other grocery stores, fill up what you need, and when you come to the checkout, we’ll deduct that weight from the overall weight and just charge you. You decide on an organization that you want to benefit some of the proceeds to, and yeah, just come back for more when you’re ready for it.
GELLERMAN: You have to make a charitable donation?
LANE: At this point, it’s what we’re hoping to do. We want to make a certain amount of the proceed to go to one of the organization that we’ve looked at to support.
GELLERMAN: So the idea is to produce as little waste as possible, or no waste.
LANE: Ideally, no waste. That’s right. The products that we use and the things that we consume have resources associated to them. Those resources are finite, for the most part, and we got to be responsible. So we’re really looking forward to encouraging people to reduce and reuse, and then recycle.
GELLERMAN: So since you’re not using all this disposable stuff, is your stuff cheaper?
LANE: We hope to be competitive and less expensive in a lot of areas. If you compare bulk transactions compared to their counterparts, they’re typically 30% less expensive. A lot of money goes into marketing and design of boxes - not to mention, there’s a lot of waste and the amount of food that gets wasted because it’s being provisioned in an amount that’s, you know, leaning towards the manufacturer, if you will, in terms of profitability, versus what the consumer really wants and needs and can actually consume in some given time period.
GELLERMAN: So they come in, they say, ‘Oh, I forgot my bags.’ What happens then?
LANE: No worries. We don’t want to be punitive, we don’t want to keep people out. So we’re going to have, you know, compostable bags, reusable bags, those kinds of things, to ensure we can facilitate the transaction. People are going to forget, you know, but it takes time to re-condition old habits.
GELLERMAN: So can you sell anything this way? Does your supermarket have everything?
LANE: Yeah, just about. We’re looking at doing a lot of local, organic and natural products and produce, and by doing so, we can actually be an extension to the farmer and the usual farmer-market-type placement that they do. The goal is to get the farmers to have their produce there and give them the opportunity to do beyond the 4-8 hours on the weekend and have their products available more days of the week.
GELLERMAN: Well down in Austin you’ve got a lot more local produce than we have here up in Boston, especially during the winter. For us, it would mean more turnips and potatoes.
LANE: Yeah, this is true. We are very fortunate down here to have long growing seasons, and it does play well to the concept and eating, you know, in season. Of course, eating in season can be a challenge but it can also be a way of diversifying the food that you’re eating. You know, when everything’s available everyday of the year, there’s a lot of things you’re not eating because you get stuck on, you know, whatever it is that’s always available to you. Eating in season brings a lot of diversity to your food and your diet. It’s a good thing to do and it’s a good thing to have as far as the environment is concerned too.
GELLERMAN: Now you sell beer and wine there, right?
LANE: Yeah, that’s the idea. It was actually part of the genesis, really, of this whole project, this whole undertaking.
GELLERMAN: You were sitting around having a bunch of beers saying, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ or - (Laughs.)
LANE: (Laughs.) Well to an extent, you know, we were sitting around thinking, a lot of cans and bottles going to waste here, and thinking about the beer enthusiasts and the popularity of Growlers - we thought, well why not just get 30-40 really good craft beers and dispense them into people’s Growlers since they seem to be a very popular thing.
GELLERMAN: Your Growler?
LANE: Yeah, Growlers, those kind of chubby, round - with a circular little handle on top - bottles, yeah. There’s another trend in California, I understand, with kegged wine, so we thought about, you know, doing beer and wine this way. But we asked ourselves, you know, let’s make this - we should do a full offering. We want to be sure we got a good, full business plan here, and we started expanding the scope into food.
GELLERMAN: Many years ago when I was living in Wisconsin, we had a place called the Willy Street Co-op, and basically you had to bring your own bags and containers - so this is not really a new idea, is it?
LANE: You know, it really isn’t. We’re really trying to facilitate a throwback to older ways of doing things, to the dawn of commerce. And that, you know, coupling it with some of the technology we have available to ourselves today, we can make those old ways easier to do.
GELLERMAN: Now I can see that the early adapters to this are going to be upscale consumers - you know, the…well, for lack of a better word, yuppies.
LANE: Yeah, that’s definitely an area I’m sure that we’ll go towards it. There’s some good confidence, though, that there’s other folks that do value the food and things that they’re putting in their body that may not be on the higher end of the economic scale. But the other thing is too - what we’re talking about doing - it is old and it is familiar to, you know, the Hispanic population and other ethnicities. They’re used to going to the market and having the beans and the grains and the produce and all these things not packaged. You know, they grab what they want, they put it in their bag, they pay for it, and go on their way.
GELLERMAN: So what’s been the response so far?
LANE: The response has been pretty crazy. It’s very, very, very positive, and people really embracing this concept. We’re getting questions about franchises, and come to Seattle, come to Portland, come to New York, come to LA, we want your story, we want your story, when are you going to be here - so it’s been almost overwhelmingly positive.
GELLERMAN: Well Christian, thank you so much, I really enjoyed it.
LANE: Likewise, the pleasure’s mine!
GELLERMAN: Christian Lane is co-founder of the zero-packaging supermarket, In.Gredients. The green, green grocer is opening its first store in Austin, Texas later this summer.
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