According to the German Environment Agency, there are up to 140 million tons of waste at the bottom of oceans, floating in the water, or washed up on beaches.
This shocking statistic is one of the first things you’re confronted with when you visit the website of Original Unverpackt, Berlin’s first packaging-free supermarket, that this month celebrated its first year anniversary. Original Unverpackt means something like “Originally Unpackaged” in German, and the concept is simple: they offer the same products as a normal supermarket, but they buy them in bulk, and the customers bring along their own jars, bottles, boxes and bags to put their items in (or they pay a small deposit and borrow some containers from the store). Fruits and vegetables are all free of plastic packaging, and dry stuff like rice and cereals are in big vats where you can take as much as you want to fill your container.
It’s all really simple actually – the only thing you have to remember to do on your first visit is to weigh the empty containers before you start, so that the weight of the container can be removed from the total weight at the till, allowing the cashier to work out how much of each product you’ve actually bought. (I forgot to do this a couple of times on my first trip, but the workers there were really nice, and very patiently helped me empty, weigh and then refill my beloved mason jars).
And at the end of it you end up with a whole load of groceries, minus the added plastic, and for a similar price.
This is what a quick trip to a normal supermarket in Germany usually ends up looking like (particularly because I usually try and buy organic things, which until recently at least, were for some reason always packaged in more plastic than the non-organic ones, example: bananas in a “bio” plastic bag). And yes, I went to Netto rather than an organic supermarket, where lots of things are sold in reusable glass bottles, so it ended up looking pretty horrible and package-y…
And this is what my shopping looked like after a trip to Original Unverpackt.
I was surprised that they even had things like tofu (pictured in the jar in the middle), that was locally produced, and lots of different sweets, nuts, cereals, spices and herbs.
The only thing I couldn’t find that I usually buy every week was soya/rice/almond milk. I’m assuming this is hard to source directly in bulk from a supplier, and maybe it’s something that they’ll start stocking in the future. They had normal milk though, and they even sell beautifully-designed (and very expensive!) glass bottles for you to take your liquid stuff home in.
And I was surprised that they had vodka on sale…
…and even red wine!
I went there on a Saturday evening (just before they closed for the weekend – German supermarkets aren’t open on a Sunday), when supermarkets are usually really busy, and Original Unverpackt was no exception. This shop was busy. It was almost difficult to move around. And it wasn’t just the kind of people you might expect to be shopping in a place like that (women in long hippy skirts and men with manbuns maybe?), but a completely average mix of people.
I was annoyed for a second at first when I realised that they didn’t have some of the things I wanted, particularly when it came to fruits and vegetables, but then I realised that that is actually exactly how a supermarket with fresh produce should work. If their shelves had been full half an hour before closing time, they would have had to throw away a whole bunch of stuff, just so that I could have the luxury of buying that one pomegranate, or whatever it was (I can’t even remember, that’s how important it was).
Okay, so I have to admit I haven’t been shopping there regularly since – it’s just too far for me to travel for a few things – and I tend to get most of my food from the sort-of-dumpster-diving organisation known as Foodsharing (an article about that will follow some unspecified time in the future). Doing your main supermarket shop here requires dedication, like any lifestyle change does. You need to plan ahead and have your containers ready, and be ready to transport your really heavy shopping home (there’s extra weight of course, because glass jars are way heavier than flimsy plastic trays and cardboard cartons). You basically need to be ready to not be as lazy as I am.
Despite all that, going there is definitely an eye-opening experience, and a really good reminder of how much waste we as consumers create in our day to day lives. And although I’m currently too lazy to go all the way to this shop to buy my groceries, there are other things I try to do when I do end up in a supermarket, as an attempt to minimize the amount of plastic I end up taking home. Like trying to avoid putting my vegetables in a plastic bag when I buy them – either choosing a paper one, or just putting them loose on the conveyer belt (even though this means the cashier and the other customers look at me really strangely while my tomatoes and all other round things roll all over the place), and choosing things in paper packaging rather than over plastic (like really simple bags of oats, rather than buying the fancy pre-mixed müsli in a plastic bag). Actually, even just writing this article has inspired me to go back. After all, is there a better sight in the world than a mason jar full of goodness?
For an interview with the owners and a look around the shop in more detail, check out the video below