SINGAPORE: It was about a year ago when Ms Florence Tay came across a video on Facebook showing a zero-waste provision store in Europe.
Decked out with self-service dispensers containing food items, the store provided no plastic bags or other forms of packaging and required customers to bring their own containers.
“I thought it was a great idea that took a step further when it comes to minimising the use of unnecessary packaging, especially plastic”, said the Singaporean who makes the effort to bring her own reusable container, cutlery and water tumbler whenever she goes out.
“I liked it so much that when I saw the message ‘Share the video if you like one in your neighbourhood’ at the end of the video, I did and even bookmarked it.”
Fast forward a year later, a grocery store with a similar do-it-yourself (DIY) and packaging-free concept will be opening its doors in the quiet neighbourhood of Sembawang Hills Estate.
And one of its owners is none other than Ms Tay.
CUTTING DOWN ON PACKAGING TO SAVE THE EARTH AND MONEY
Called UnPackt, the store is currently preparing for its soft launch on May 5 and its concept of having no food packaging may likely make it the first of its kind in Singapore.
Like the video that inspired Ms Tay, customers keen to do their grocery shopping at UnPackt will be encouraged to bring their own reusable packaging.
Before going about their shopping, customers will need to weigh their containers, jars or bottles on a weighing scale provided so that the weight can be noted down and later excluded from their bills. After filling up each container with the food item they like, customers will need to weigh their containers again at the counter before making payment.
Though cleaned recycled containers and shopping bags – most of them donated by members of the public – will be available for free, this means that it’s best for consumers to do some planning before heading down to UnPackt.
This “mindful planning” of one’s shopping list will help to curb impulse purchases and reduce waste, said Ms Tay.
“We are quite the opposite of supermarket shopping," she said.
"We encourage you to come with a shopping list so that you only buy what you really need. But if you do forget or see something else that you need, pick up one of our recycled containers and we hope that you will continue to use these containers or even bring them back.”
Ms Tay, a marketing manager turned entrepreneur, and her co-founder Jeff Lam have thus far invested about S$100,000 to get things started, with the bulk of the money going into rental and renovation works to refurbish the 1,200-sqft shophouse space.
As a start, the grocery store will focus on selling food items, with a majority being healthier options such as rice with lower glycaemic index, organic pasta and superfood powders.
These will be kept in large dispensers or gravity bins to minimise individual packaging. It will also be stocking locally-made cleaning supplies, such as cold-pressed soap bars and an eco-enzyme detergent made by local social enterprise ecosenses and non-governmental organisation MINDS.
Ms Tay said the bigger focus on food items from the get-go boils down to how it is hard to find food, especially organic ones, with zero packaging in Singapore.
With the absence of individual packaging, the owners of UnPackt think they could reduce retail prices by about 5 per cent and hope that would “lower the entry barrier” for people to take the first step in changing their consumption habits.
“The price that consumers pay usually involves the costs of buying packaging materials and the manpower costs at the packaging facilities of manufacturers,” said Mr Lam.
“Because we buy in bulk, there is no packaging costs that we need to transfer to our customers. Our research indicate that bulk purchases are usually 5 per cent lower than packaged items so we will price ours accordingly.”
Added Ms Tay: “People tend to have the idea that going green requires additional costs but we want to prove that wrong by making our prices affordable.”
Eventually, the duo aims to expand the store offerings to consumer items, such as eco-friendly body wash, shampoos and other plastic-free alternatives like stainless steel straws, making it a “one-stop shop” for sustainable living.
Other plans on the pipeline include rolling out a recycling scheme where members of the public can donate their cleaned containers and bottles.
Once its operationally stable, the social enterprise also intends to hire full-time employees, with a preference for single mums and senior citizens. For this, UnPackt is already in touch with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to find suitable candidates.
When that happens, the empty room at the back of the grocery store will be converted into a children’s playroom for single-mum employees to bring their kids to work.
Ms Tay, who is a single mum herself, said this is due to her own experience of finding it difficult to juggle both work and family.
“It’s really hard for single mums, especially those with lower education levels, to find a job. With childcare centres costing about S$600 to S$700 a month, it is just so much tougher for them,” she said.
But before that, the two founders are concentrating on promoting the store’s zero-waste concept.
Mr Lam admitted that he had doubts initially when Ms Tay first approached him with the idea, but his interest in curbing food waste soon helped him to come round.
The bachelor who is living alone said even with conscious purchasing efforts, he still finds it difficult to do grocery shopping for one. He reckons that a store like UnPackt will help singles like him.
But the 37-year-old still thinks there could be slower business on weekdays when the grocery store opens, and expects potential customers to have “plenty of questions” given that the concept of having no food packaging in a grocery store goes against what Singaporean consumers are used to.
“We have all been brought up in an environment where everything is convenient. Our food comes with packaging and that’s associated with being clean,” said Mr Lam.
“There may be people who won’t be able to accept food that doesn’t come in packaging so I think we will have to do a lot of explaining to do for that,” he added.
Ms Tay is more hopeful.
Citing a survey that she had put out while preparing for the launch of UnPackt, more than 1,000 respondents indicated that they are willing to support a zero waste grocery store. She has also received emails from schools that would like to arrange excursion trips to UnPackt for their students.
However, the owners have had to battle with one dilemma. While they have taken steps to be more eco-conscious and avoid disposables, both Ms Tay and Mr Lam said they still have a long way to go before they can call themselves as "zero wasters".
“This was something that Jeff and I debated several times. Can we call ourselves owners of a zero waste store if we ourselves haven’t fully achieved a zero waste lifestyle?” said Ms Tay.
While most of the furniture in the store are second-hand items and recycled materials, there are things that are brand new, such as the self-service gravity bins used to store food items.
With zero-waste organic products being hard to find in Singapore, the duo also had to source for these overseas, which inevitably creates packaging and food miles.
“That’s something that we had to overcome but we’ll like people to know that we are not zero wasters yet. We are working towards that and hopefully, everyone can join us.
“Perhaps becoming more eco-conscious can start from something simple. A slight change in lifestyle can be cultivated into habits. If everyone does that, the effect will accumulate and grow,” said Ms Tay.