SINGAPORE: Earlier this month, Ms June Eng made plans to visit a new grocery store with her family but for this shopping trip, she had to be prepared.
With three reusable containers in her bag, the recycling enthusiast headed to UnPackt – a social enterprise located in Jalan Kuras that sells daily necessities without packaging.
Despite having to bring her own carrier, the 42-year-old, who became a vegetarian four years ago to reduce her carbon footprint, described it as an experience that she had been “looking forward to”.
“I always wanted to do this but never had the chance,” she said, while passing a container to her child to get a snack. “This is a good initiative that’s long overdue.”
With an aim of reducing unnecessary waste, plastic bags or any form of plastic packaging are a no-no at UnPackt.
Instead of the usual pre-packed items that one is used to seeing at supermarkets, dried food, oils and cleaning supplies are stocked in self-service dispensers that line up the shelves. Customers are free to fill up their carriers with the amount they want and prices are determined by weight.
The grocery store, which opened its doors just two weeks ago, is not alone in touting this packaging-free concept.
At The Social Space, a multi-concept lifestyle store along Kreta Ayer Street, the refillery section is decked out with at least ten dispensers, each ranging from 15 to 20 litres. Items on sale include shampoo, eco-friendly dishwashing and laundry liquids.
Pop-up store The Green Collective is also encouraging shoppers to bring more than just their own bags. Among the 15 eco-friendly brands gathered under one roof at OneKM Mall, two of them sell food items and Castile liquid soap without packaging.
All three shops require consumers to bring their own containers and bottles, or purchase one in-store. At UnPackt, there is also the option of using a donated one for free.
These zero-waste businesses come as packaging continues to make a big contribution to Singapore's annual trash mountain.
Figures from the National Environment Agency (NEA) showed that 1.7 million tonnes of waste was generated domestically in 2016. Of this, one-third was packaging waste, such as single-use plastic bags and takeaway food containers, that could fill up more than 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
With their stores offering plastic-free shopping options, the eco-conscious entrepreneurs are hoping to get Singaporeans started on reducing waste in their daily lives.
UnPackt’s co-founder Florence Tay said the response thus far has been “quite good”, with the grocery store seeing a couple of regulars within two weeks of opening.
“We managed to encourage some of the residents nearby to embark on purchasing without packaging,” said the former marketing manager at the Singapore Heart Foundation. “On their first time here, they had to use one of our recycled containers but subsequently, they started bringing their own.”
“This is definitely faster than I expected,” said Ms Tay.
At The Social Space, its founders Daniel Yeow and Cheryl Ou have also had an “encouraging start” with consumers who may not have been committed environmentalists.
“There was one aunty who happened to walk by, decided to come into our store and started asking many questions like why we’re doing this and how the refillery concept works,” said Ms Ou. “She really had no clue as it was her first time seeing something like this.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting her to come back but she did and with her own containers. These are the unexpected customers who make us really happy.”
WIDENING THE REACH
Still, the entrepreneurs are aware that not all consumers have given them the green light, especially in Singapore where the use of single-use plastic, such as straws and food packaging, are entrenched in the country’s consumption habits.
“The aunty who lifted our spirits is not an anomaly, but neither is she the majority,” said Ms Ou, noting that most of the patrons at the refillery section continue to be zero-waste advocates.
Echoing that, Mr Mayur Singh, a co-founder of The Green Collective, said Singaporeans are generally aware of environmental issues, though there remains a “missing gap” between awareness and action.
“We all wanted to talk to more local consumers, which is why we are so happy to have the opportunity of a retail store in the heartlands. Just focusing on the expatriate community or those who are already eco-warriors won’t work,” said Mr Singh, who also runs social enterprise Coopita.
Pricing is a strategy that the businesses are banking on to appeal to more consumers.
Given the absence of individual packaging, the economics of bulk-purchasing allows UnPackt and The Social Space to price their products at 5 to 10 per cent cheaper, respectively.
“We are already saving because we are buying in bulk,” said Mr Yeow. “When deciding how much of that savings we should transfer to our customers, we decided that it needs to be significant enough for people to go ‘Alright, I can give this a try!’”
Retail analyst Samuel Tan from Temasek Polytechnic's School of Business noted that while more Singaporeans are paying attention to sustainable living, it is still a “long journey” when it comes to educating and cultivating a change in the buying behaviours of consumers.
“Drawing from the experience of a leading environmentally-friendly retailer, it took years for Body Shop to be well accepted by shoppers for the brand’s belief and philosophy,” said Mr Tan, who suggested independent players like UnPackt to step up on their social media presence or consider tie-ups with bigger retailers.
Ms Jen Teo, executive director of the Singapore Environment Council, reckoned that with green consumerism on the rise, eco-friendly stores are a “step in the right direction” and will likely do well in the long run.
But before that, more needs to be done to drum up awareness about Singapore’s environmental issues.
“Singaporeans will need to learn to reduce waste and recycle more if it is to reach the goal of becoming a Zero Waste Nation by 2030. The key lies in understanding what we should use less of, and what we can and should eliminate in our daily living,” said Ms Tan.
To spur more Singaporeans to take the first step towards reducing waste, The Green Collective has been holding weekly events, ranging from talks centred around various environmental issues to workshops on soap-making and upcycling of furniture.
Co-founder Danielle Champagne said: “The idea is not just to sell, but to make this into a one-stop shop to bring together people with similar mindset while exposing the wider population to a greener lifestyle.”
“We want to show that going green doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive,” she told Channel NewsAsia. “It is all about small, simple steps every day that make a difference."