Zero waste: A battle in California against wasteful packaging

A farmers' market in Oceanside, where a heavy emphasis is placed on recycling. (Photo: Dogora Sun, via Shutterstock)

This business model’s approach to reducing packaging waste may help compensate for California’s inefficient recycling system and complement recent plastic-reduction efforts

In 2019, a Californian named Zuleyka Strasner created a sustainable grocery delivery startup called Zero Grocery.

Previously an operations manager at a Bay Area venture capital firm, she got the idea for her low-waste grocery service after seeing a startling amount of plastic trash washing up on the tropical Nicaraguan beach where she’d honeymooned. Grocery delivery became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the packaging waste generated from this widespread delivery service quickly became apparent, and that increase in waste dovetailed with consumers’ increasing interest in sustainable practices and their own carbon footprints. 

Strasner had already been thinking about plastic waste and the supply chain. Applying her experience in tech to the trash problem back home, Strasner came up with a solution: work directly with suppliers and deliver Bay Area customers’ grocery orders in boxes, reusable glass jars, and compostable containers. When Zero Grocery returned to a customer’s address for a subsequent delivery, they would pick up the previous delivery’s glass jars to take back to the warehouse and clean.

Zero Grocery was one of numerous small California businesses trying to address wasteful packaging in the grocery and home and body care sectors.

Named for the emerging zero waste store business model, Zero’s suppliers, from coffee roasters to chicken farmers to bakeries, complied with company packaging standards to eliminate as much waste from their supply chain as possible. Zero planned to export the business to Los Angeles and the rest of the U.S. “We aim to be and we will be the largest sustainability platform in this country,” Strasner told TechCrunch in 2021. “So whatever you need and desire — food, homewares or otherwise, certainly plastic-free but also just sustainable in general — you would come to us. Zero really is a movement beyond just food.”

Zero Grocery raised a total of $16 million of venture capital by 2022. That same year, the company closed, leaving untold amounts of outstanding debts with suppliers and a sense of defeat among those who believed in its mission.

Thankfully, Zero Grocery was one of numerous small California businesses trying to address wasteful packaging in the grocery and home and body care sectors, while capitalizing on consumers’ growing interest in sustainability. Orange County has Eco Now, Fresno has Good Fill, Berkeley has Fillgood, Los Angeles has Sustain LA, and Carmel has Eco Carmel. Berkeley even has the bulk foods delivery service Fulfilld, but it’s still easier to buy zero waste household cleaners, body care, and pet products than it is to buy food at a zero waste store.

Strasner told The San Francisco Chronicle that Zero Grocery’s focus on sustainability put it at a competitive disadvantage in the difficult grocery and delivery market. But sustainability was the company’s core mission. If anyone is going to revamp the grocery model for our era of climate change, it’s easy to assume it will be someone in California, a hub of innovation, industry disruption and venture capital, and home to some of the nation’s most ambitious climate change policies.

With a 65% diversion rate, California keeps more waste from its landfills than the national average, but overall, America’s recycling infrastructure is broken. The zero waste business model holds potential to address recycling’s inherent limitations by showing consumers how to shop in a way that generates little to no waste, and California holds the potential to show the rest of the country how to operate this way, too.

The ugly, easily ignored fact about American recycling is that only 9% of recyclable plastics ever get recycled.

Even though California’s single-use plastic reduction law, SB54, fails to outlaw polystyrene and a toxic chemical recycling process for plastic, the law’s recent passage created a broader public conversation around plastic pollution and the state’s linear recycling system. Time will tell if that has made this time ripe with opportunity and the consumer awareness necessary for zero waste businesses to increase in the state.

The state of recycling
The ugly, easily ignored fact about American recycling is that only 9% of recyclable plastics ever get recycled. The other 91% ends up in landfills or as litter. We’re talking about familiar single-use packages that we concerned citizens separate into the proper bins: to-go salad containers, plastic water bottles, jugs of biodegradable laundry detergent. Then, of course, there’s all the non-recyclable Styrofoam cups, disposable plastic cutlery, Ziploc sandwich bags, Saranwrap, cosmetics containers, and dental floss dispensers. We shoppers mean well, but our system isn’t truly equipped to transform that recyclable waste into new materials, partly because the system requires too many financial incentives to work.

America’s recycling system is market driven. Collecting recyclables from homes and business and sorting them costs money. Metals are desirable recyclables. You can find paying markets for those, but it’s rarely cost-effective to recycle the plastics we toss in the recycling bin. Without being able to sell the waste to someone who can make something else from it, many communities have to pay to get rid of their recycling, and it’s often cheaper to simply put it in the landfill—which is what we’re trying to avoid.

For instance, few waste processors want the plastic clamshell containers that berries are sold in, because the material is laminated and often has adhesive product labels stuck to it. So this unwanted recyclable packaging can pile up. Then there are plastic toothpaste tubes, plastic bins of salad greens, the yogurt container you sort of tried to clean, the plastic caps from our organic plant milk Tetra Paks, the film you peel from your hot sauce container, the plastic bag that holds your frozen Trader Joe’s spring rolls, and the plastic sheets that separate each frozen Taiwanese green onion pancakes in the bag.

What about the oily plastic salad dressing bottle you tried diligently to wash? It’s Newman’s Own—all proceeds go to charity—but it’s often too dirty to get recycled. And even though you compost old produce, you still bag your veggies in plastic bags at the grocery store. The point is that what we think works to reduce pollution does not work as well as we hope, so consumers’ good intentions have filled our oceans and landfills with more trash than we can even comprehend, let alone clean up.

The U.S. has no national standard for recycling. Instead, approximately 20,000 U.S communities set up their own rules.

Back when the U.S. used to ship large percentage of its recycling to China and smaller developing countries for processing, Bakersfield, California generated $65 for each ton of its recyclable waste. After China quit taking our contaminated trash in 2018, disposing of recycling actually cost Bakersfield $25 a ton. Naturally, American found other countries to ship our waste to, and we ate certain costs, but we never, on a national level, addressed how to reduce plastic waste while increasing plastic recycling—or improving American recycling at all. We keep sorting into bins, and the stuff keeps ending up polluting cities, waterways, natural areas, and the ocean, as well as our bodies.

An estimated 14 million tons of plastic ends up into the ocean every single year. As a country, we have to quit deluding ourselves into thinking that sorting our trash is significantly reducing plastic pollution and reducing waste across the board. It’s not. More sophisticated, stringent recycling systems achieve greater results in Japan, South Korea, and Germany than most U.S. cities. San Francisco and Los Angeles are glowing exceptions: They recycle and compost a combined 80% of their waste. And then there’s the state’s 65% diversion rate. But for many Americans, recycling is a comforting lie most of us tell ourselves. It has an environmental impact, so it’s better than doing nothing, but it mostly provides room for improvement.

The U.S. has no national standard for recycling. Instead, approximately 20,000 U.S communities set up their own rules, deciding which materials to recycle and how. No matter how efficient and dedicated they are to cutting waste, recycling is influenced by economics. This contributes to confusion among consumers. Confusion leads consumers to toss more soiled and incorrect materials into bins, which leads to the contamination of recyclable materials, which leads recyclables into landfills, rather than back into a circular system.

Because American recycling systems are market driven, many believe that market forces will be what fixes those systems.

Americans want better recycling programs. It matters to them.

Market forces would include domestic demand for high quality recycled materials, improved methods for cleaning and sorting recyclable materials, improved technology for processing those materials into plastics whose quality is on par with new virgin plastics, and then creating an international market for recycled materials. In this scenario, there have to be financial incentives to keep recyclables from becoming something other than pollution. Companies like Agilyx are working to create ways to truly recycle plastic, and organizations like The Recycling Partnership have designed ways to help consumers navigate recycling policy in their community, but other factors currently work against fixing this broken system.

Americans want better recycling programs. It matters to them. Research by the Consumer Brands Association, the U.S. trade association who represents manufacturers of food, beverage, and household consumer packaged goods, found that 86% of Americans believe that single-use plastic and packaging waste has led to a global plastic crisis. Most Americans consider recycling a public service, rather than one that should be dictated by profit margins and business concerns.

Seventy-three percent of Americans think the federal government does an ineffective job handling plastic and consumer packaging waste, and 93% of Americans polled believe that federal standards would improve the situation. While consumers wait for governmental agencies to fix their recycling systems, research by the Consumer Brands Association shows that 80% of the 25 largest producers of consumer packaged goods aim to transition their packaging to 100% fully recyclable packaging, for all products, by 2030. A 2019 survey showed that 85% of CPG manufacturers were already investing some resources into increasing their packaging’s’ recyclability.

Founded in 2002, the Zero Waste International Alliance created standards to guide policy makers, communities, businesses, and organizations.

That’s great news if those trends lead to significant waste reductions, but 2030 is also a long time to wait. Consumers need help reducing waste right now.

“It will only ever make economic sense to recycle a small subset of materials, which means we will have to look beyond recycling alone to solve for our broader waste,” Stephanie Kersten-Johnson, a sustainability professor at Columbia University, told the Columbia Climate School’s news outlet. “We need to tap into new business models that allow us to reduce our consumption in the first place, and re-use materials where we can. This can include things like rental or service models. But while we work to scale these types of solutions, we can’t take our eyes off recycling.”

Zero waste stores are one such solution.

The zero waste business model
Founded in 2002, the Zero Waste International Alliance created standards to guide policy makers, communities, businesses, and organizations who worked to reduce waste. In 2004, the Alliance developed their definition of “zero waste” and updated it in 2018:

“Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

In 2014, California’s GrassRoots Recycling Network changed their name to Zero Waste USA and became the U.S. affiliate of the International Alliance, which has affiliates in Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.

Of course, many communities have businesses that keep reusable products in circulation, such as resale clothing stores, conventional thrift stores, and material reuse centers that sell the wood, doors, and fixtures from home demolitions. But zero waste practices have different ambitions.

 Dispensing yourself eliminates packaging. It also gives you control.

The zero waste store model has since emerged as one who aims to reduce or eliminate single-use consumer packaging, particularly plastic packaging, from its business, by providing alternative ways for consumers to take their purchases home, and alternate ways for the stores to receive their stock. The goal is to create a circular economic system, rather than our existing linear one based on single use, disposable items.

Instead of plastic or paper grocery bags, customers use compostable or natural fiber totes. Instead of palletized goods wrapped in plastic film, stores order in large volumes, even in barrels, to reduce waste and lower product costs. Instead of buying single quantities of, say, detergent and shampoo in plastic bottles, customers dispense goods from bulk bins into reusable glass jars and pay by volume. Those of us who have been shopping at natural grocers with bulk bins before and after the rise of Whole Foods are used to dispensing bulk foods into bags and paying by volume. Oats, nuts, chocolate chips, rice, pasta, flour, polenta, lentils, beans, honey, oil, soap—so many stables are available in bulk, but bulk products are still limited compared to traditional grocery products, particularly produce.

Some zero grocers, like The Realm Refillery in Portland, Oregon, offer small selections of fresh, perishable food, such as bread, local tofu, kimchi, and vegan deli meat. The whole business model needs more of that. Dispensing yourself eliminates packaging. It also gives you control. When goods are not pre-packaged, they’re no longer portioned for you by volume or serving. You determine how much you need, and that both eliminates waste and improves cost-effectiveness.

Zero waste stores address another important issue: Recycling is finite, reuse is infinite.

On the consumer side, zero waste practices can help further shift consumers’ focus to reducing and reusing.

You can recycle and reuse metal and glass indefinitely, but even if your single-use packaging does get recycled, you cannot indefinitely recycle most materials. According to Columbia University, “[P]aper can be recycled five to seven times before it’s too degraded to be made into ‘new’ paper; plastic can only be recycled once or twice—and usually not into a food container—since the polymers break down in the recycling process.” Recycling’s physical limitations make it only one part of the multifactorial solution.

For this reason, zero waste stores try to shift consumers’ focus from recycling to the other two Rs: reducing and reusing. California’s SB54 is working to reduce the source of waste. It stipulates that plastic producers have to reduce the total amount of plastic they distribute in California by 25% by 2032, and those producers have to ensure that 65% of their newly recyclable and compostable food ware and packaging actually gets recycled or composted by 2032.

On the consumer side, zero waste practices can help further shift consumers’ focus to reducing and reusing, which can extend beyond the zero waste stores and carry over to our experiences at coffee shops, with take-out food, on our lunch breaks, to contribute to that circular system. People integrating zero waste principles into their lives can bring their own cup to the coffee shop, put their to-go boba tea in a refillable jar, buy berries at farmer’s markets rather than in conventional plastic clamshell packages.

In addition to bulk goods, zero waste stores offer alternatives to the disposable items we use at home.

All of this requires access and a larger food budget, and that often involves economic and social privilege. Is zero waste an option for people on fixed budgets, without transportation, who live in food deserts? How will consumers who rely on public transportation carry all those glass jars around? To increase access, some stores  accept EBT, which is essentially food stamps, but there are many kinks to iron out. For those who can shop this way, it holds potential.

Encouraging consumers’ to focus more on reducing and reusing offers a way to empower consumers while we wait for governmental agencies to fix the recycling system and for laws like California’s SB54 to get consumer package goods manufacturers to create truly recyclable packaging for our purchases.

In addition to bulk goods, zero waste stores offer alternatives to the disposable items we use at home.

Many sell metal reusable straws; bamboo utensils; dental floss made from bamboo fiber that’s sold without a plastic dispenser; collapsible coffee cups; collapsible silicon bags and washable beeswax sheets to use in place of Ziplock bags; cloth diapers; cloth panty-liners; stainless steel mesh coffee filters to replace paper filters; recyclable paper packing tape to replace plastic tape; cotton bowl covers to replace disposable plastic wrap and aluminum foil covers; even mouthwash tablets that come in a jar, instead of liquid in a bottle. It’s hard work replacing our common daily products with package-free alternatives, but companies are doing it.

Many California communities have small markets and co-ops whose traditional bulk food dispensing systems qualify as a low-waste practice.

Sometimes referred to as “package-free,” “plastic-free,” or “litterless” businesses, zero waste often technically qualifies as “low-waste,” as some single use packaging does enter these stores’ supply chains, as some owners make the case that a little bit should in order to drive the businesses larger goals, rather than lock vendors out through too stringent of standards.

Neither the National Grocers Association nor FMI, The Food Industry Association tracks the number of zero waste stores—they’re still a gray area in the food supply chain—but CalRecycle, the state’s recycling authority, does provide information about it.

Zero waste in California
Some large American cities now have at least one zero waste store, from Boston to Miami, Burlington to Brooklyn. Many climate-conscious Californians have put their values into practice in different areas of the zero waste space. Some provide mobile refills and house calls. Others offer delivery and a brick and mortar store. Some include groceries. Most offer home and body care.

Many California communities have small markets and co-ops whose traditional bulk food dispensing systems qualify as a low-waste practice, such as North Coast Co-op in Arcata, and Rainbow Grocery in the Bay Area, which sells over 800 bulk foods. “We’re here because the grocery industry has made it impossible to avoid plastic packaging and waste,” the L.A store re_ writes on their website, “and we want to change that.” Sustain LA combines many services to cover a lot of ground.

Leslie VanKeuren Campbell founded Sustain LA in 2009, mixing retail with zero waste event planning and consultation services. In 2006, she managed a popular restaurant in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, and the amount of single-use packaging and waste this one operation generated revolutionized her way of thinking and mobilized her to do something about it.

Zero waste touches most aspects of modern life

“While I was a few years out from making the transition to a zero waste lifestyle,” Campbell wrote on her blog, “I had already decided not to patronize any establishments still using Styrofoam containers for take-out. And yet, there we were, using them in our own kitchen.” She saw this as too high an environmental price to pay for the conveniences that conventional packaging provided. She convinced her boss to find alternative take-out containers, and the decision was so well received that the restaurant eventually streamlined their energy and water use and began recycling and composting through what was then Los Angeles’ pilot program for collecting food scraps. After all, this was 2006. Zero waste was barely a codified effort. Based on the success of these changes, Campbell started Sustain LA as a way to empower other Angelinos to utilize zero waste principles in their daily lives and businesses.

Sustain LA now has a brick-and-mortar refilling station for body care and household products. They also offer a range of related services, including sustainable event planning services and rentable reusable service ware in place of disposables. As consultants, they help businesses and other organizations achieve sustainability goals by implementing large- and small-scale changes, and they design plans to help individuals live a lower waste lifestyle at home. Zero waste touches most aspects of modern life. Sustain LA is really testing the ways these principles can be applied and monetized as a business. Their longevity is promising.

Making zero waste work
Beer drinkers know the value of buying fresh beer in their own growlers. People who have shopped at co-ops or natural foods chains are used to buying bulk. They understand the value of bringing tote bags to stores. But can the average consumer get used to buying all their shampoo, cereal, noodles, and cleaning supplies in refillable packages? That’s a big change in thinking.

The fact is, bulk buying is not “pretty.” American consumers are used to colorful packaging.

Even the most conscientious shoppers still only supplement their standard shopping with bulk-buying, keeping most products in single-use consumer packaged goods and buying some stuff, like pasta and flour, bulk. How do you get mainstream products like Pop-Tarts, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and Hormel bacon out of their packages? Can you? To maximize zero waste’s potential, what now resides in the eco-friendly and natural foods space needs to cross over into the mainstream. Customer adoption will require competitive prices, ease of use, accessibility, and savvy marketing to send the messages that will overturn existing ideas about this kind of shopping.

Zero waste shopping has to be affordable and simple to reach people who aren’t part of the vegan Soy Curls™ demographic. It also has to be stylish and cool.

The fact is, bulk buying is not “pretty.” American consumers are used to colorful packaging. We’re used to logos and sleek bottle design. Refillable jars—they look messy, and hippie, like we’re camping, not in our kitchen. You keep cat food in bins and nails in jars, I imagine people saying. You don’t store food that way! For some people, jars look impoverished. Brands stand for something. They represent wealth, status, success, identity, comfort, and premium and luxury products attract particular kinds of buyers for their own reasons.

Aesthetics can potentially make the often spartan, back-to-basics co-op look of bulk businesses more appealing to consumers.

Other consumers will be unaccustomed to the pragmatic minimalism of stores filled with bulk bins and spigots for dispensing shampoo. Like everything, we can get used to the look of it. We just need time to adjust and retrain our minds.

Consumers who are concerned with these symbolic and social aspects of branding and packing will need to be reached somehow, because seeing beans in jars with handwritten labels isn’t going to easily convert them to devoted advocates of plastic-free living. And it’ll take more than marketing slogans like “Bulk groceries go way beyond granola” and “Refill stations: Not just for hippies!”

Re_’s interior design style, and Sustain LA’s clean, stylish store and website, offer two case studies in the way aesthetics can potentially make the often spartan, back-to-basics co-op look of bulk businesses more appealing to consumers—even make bulk items as attractive and luxurious as traditional packaged goods.

Some large mainstream grocers are already experimenting with reusable packaging.

The Kroger retail company recently teamed up with a circular delivery service called Loop, in 25 of its Fred Meyer stores in Portland, Oregon. Created by the waste management firm TerraCycle, Loop provides select groceries in reusable containers in-store—including name brands like Gerber, Pantene, and Clorox—and it provides return stations for customers to deposit their empty reusable containers and close the circuit.

Maybe there is no such thing as a true waste-free future, but the future of low-waste shopping is already here for certain kinds of products.

The Tesco grocery chain in the UK uses Loop, and other UK grocers, such as Morrisons and Marks & Spencer, have been testing their own refilling stations, and seeing favorable responses. British customers embraced the Asda chain’s pilot refill program, which sold popular brands like Quaker Oats, PG Tips tea, and Kellogg’s cereals, so Asda is expanding their offerings. And Tim Horton’s in Canada, McDonald’s in the UK, and Burger King in the U.S. have partnered with Loop to see how to utilize reusable packaging in the fast food business. Will any California grocery chains adopt Loop?

I can’t help but wonder if California’s single-use plastic reduction law, SB54, has made this time ripe with the consumer awareness necessary for zero waste businesses to thrive in the state.

Maybe there is no such thing as a true waste-free future, but the future of low-waste shopping is already here for certain kinds of products. In the best-case scenario, this scrappy, DIY business model can get adopted by more mainstream chain grocers like Safeway, Ralph’s, and Winn-Dixie, can broaden from pop-ups and farmers markets, and can help break some of America’s collective delusion about the simple ritual of sorting trash into bins. Time will tell.

California may not have invented the zero waste business the way it invented such global cultural exports as skateboarding, or the way it shaped the global film and TV business, but the state has enough innovative thinkers and ambitious, value-driven entrepreneurs that it has the potential to lead the rest of the country this way if marketed correctly. California also has itself to market as part of this push. It’s iconic. It’s cool. As Cathy Hotka, at the IT marketing firm Cathy Hotka & Associates, told the trade publication RetailWire,

“The first grocer that makes this cool will win,” she said.

If Californians make zero waste cool, then maybe they can convert the country. California, are you ready to make the leap?

Editor’s Note: Aaron Gilbreath, author of “The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley,” is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

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