A Visit to London's First Zero Waste Store

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©. K Martinko

Bulk opened at the end of August and has been doing a brisk business ever since.

London's first-ever zero waste store is located on Kingsland Road in Hackney. The storefront is simple and subtle, with one small sign indicating its name, Bulk, and an attractive window display of fresh pastries, loaves of multigrain bread, and baskets of beautiful produce to draw in curious passersby.

Inside, Bulk feels like an oasis, far from the four lanes of rushing traffic just outside the door and the flashing, gaudy signs of neighboring stores. This is zero waste land, after all, a place where conscientious shoppers come to escape the trappings of consumerism and buy products in their purest form.

Bulk window

© K Martinko

I went to see Bulk this week, having written about its launch several months ago. I met Ingrid Caldironi, the founder, and her new business partner, Bruna. Together, we talked about the zero waste scene in London, how Bulk is doing, and what the future holds.

People have been wonderfully receptive, Caldironi told me. Saturdays are the busiest shopping day, with some people traveling an hour and a half on the train to buy food. Those who walk in unprepared can purchase bottles or bags, or use a jar from the donated 'jar bank'. For the most part, though, people have read about the store online and come equipped.

I am impressed by the variety of products. Bulk sells loose eggs, cheese, olive oil, vinegar, dry goods, spices, coffee, dog food, toilet paper, and solid oils and butters, among other things. Caldironi is diligent about sourcing within a 100-mile range, although a few imported products come from France and the Netherlands -- "no bananas flown in from Dominican Republic."

Bulk store floor

© K Martinko

organic eggs

© K Martinko

When asked about health and safety regulations, so often touted by Canadian supermarkets as the reason for not allowing customers to refill their own containers, Caldironi said no such rules exist in Britain. She did extensive research and was inspected by the health authority, which loved her concept.

"It's not about regulations. It's about the supermarkets' own policies. There's nothing in health regulations that says we can't refill, or that it's unsafe, or that it's unhygienic."

Caldironi also takes pre-sale packaging into consideration. Most dry goods come in paper bags; olive oil comes in tins; and cleaning products come in refillable plastic jugs. This means Bulk cannot be called a 'plastic-free' store, but Caldironi said that's not the point: "Our goal is to shorten the supply chain in order to reduce the overall amount of plastic."

zero waste sign

© K Martinko -- The funky custom-made sign that hangs above the till

Not everything has gone smoothly. A crowdfunding campaign failed to meet its target, and the current location is only a pop-up, its lease expiring at the end of this year, but Caldironi remains optimistic. She has secured a new commission fund that will allow her to get a lease elsewhere, but still needs to raise money to equip a larger space.

Once she gets that, she plans to outfit the store with reclaimed fabrics from the Royal Opera Company and install countertops made from upcycled yogurt pots. The new space will include a composting facility and a room for community workshops.

How did her zero waste journey start? Surprisingly, Caldironi formerly worked in marketing for the oil industry, "helping convenience retailers set up shops in service stations." After reading an article about Lauren Singer (founder of Trash is for Tossers), she wanted to live differently. Eventually she quit her job to open Bulk and is now "living the perfect life."

Ingrid & Bruna

© K Martinko -- Ingrid & Bruna, business partners in zero waste

But she realizes that zero waste shopping alone won't save the world. The biggest problem is design:

"It's absurd that people pay to hold rubbish that's the end product of an item manufactured by a company. [It's the company that] should be responsible for it, not the people who are paying taxes for all the infrastructure required to recycle it."

Until then, her store will smooth the way for the many shoppers who do wish to reduce their trash and who deserve retailers that support that goal.