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Rise of the Zero Waste Stores

Every time I make it down to my local supermarket and browse around for supplies I tend to get a sinking feeling. Most of the items I seek come packed in some form of plastic, paper, foam (polystyrene), tin or glass. In one shopping trip we amass so much soon-to-be trash! So, is all this wrapping material for our goods really necessary? Why are people in the supermarket supply chain business not taking more action to reduce superfluous packaging materials? How did we come to this? What have we been thinking? Or NOT thinking! Okay, I can see the practicality, the hygiene purpose and the branding (marketing) packaging serves, but times have changed and this practice needs to change too – big time! We have littered our planet with this stuff and that’s not okay.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food and packaging/containers combined account for almost 45% of the materials landfilled in the United States. And the biggest landfill on Earth is actually our oceans. You may have heard of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, the area in the North Pacific Gyre that is between Hawaii and California. This massive stretch of water has the biggest concentration of plastic debris, which equals the size of the state of Texas! Can you imagine that? Experts are now predicting that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. To say things have ‘gotten out of hand’ with our waste habits is a gross understatement!

Okay, so we know this waste problem is monumental. There is simply no way we can turn a blind eye to this human induced atrocity anymore. More often than not, the negative effects of waste mismanagement can be seen (and unfortunately experienced) in our city or even our neighborhood; resulting in trash carelessly strewn about, polluted waterways and individuals openly and illegally burning their trash! The innocent animals have to bear the brunt of our single use packaging waste too, often mistaking plastic for food and even choking on those remains. We may have been able to plead ignorance before, but today allowing this to happen is thoughtless and even cruel.

Picture:  http://plasticisrubbish.com/2013/04/07/animals-eating-plastic-photos/

Change on the Horizon

But wait; there is always a silver lining! So, here is the good news: lately, people are finding more effective ways to reduce, and in some cases eliminate packaging where possible, while replacing others with eco friendly and biodegradable materials. Furthermore, zero waste shops are becoming increasingly popular all over the world and are gaining momentum on social media (only to spread the good practice!).

The world’s very first zero-waste shop, Unpackaged, opened in London in 2007. Since then, at least several hundred packaging-free markets, including on-line stores, have cropped up worldwide. There is even a website dedicated to waste free stores and provides a directory for them (https://www.bepakt.com). So how do these zero waste stores work? Well, as the name suggests the aim is to reduce waste to a minimum while supplying consumers with goods. So, for example, instead of seeing row upon row of single-use plastic bottles filled with household cleaning liquid, you may find one large container or dispenser with this product. You would then use your own reusable container and fill it with the product (many stores sell you their multi-use containers, too). The same concept would be applied for food items, which are often found displayed in bulk. Furthermore, this allows shoppers to buy the exact amounts they need (instead of pre-packaged quantities), which can also be cost effective as well as minimize waste. Zero waste stores also aim to provide consumers with organic, environmentally friendly and locally sourced goods as much as possible.

First Zero Waste Store in the Middle East

These zero waste stores normally embrace a philosophy that encompasses good green practices overall. This means they are striving to be sustainable and waste-free while also providing healthier organic products that are ethically produced. In other words, these stores are embracing a holistic approach to retail that is better for everyone involved – from producers to consumers and the environment. In the Middle East the first store of this kind has opened in February of this year. The store, which is called ‘Eco-Souk’, opened in Lebanon. At The Wellness Project we think it is a very exciting start to (hopefully) a new trend in the Middle East. So let me tell you more about the Eco-Souk and its philosophy regarding zero-waste…

The Eco-Souk is an initiative of the Lebanese NGO Recycle Lebanon, a non-profit organization focused on creating social change and a circular economy. A circular economy (as defined by Macmillan dictionary) means: “an economy that reuses and recycles resources to keep them in play for as long as possible.” The idea here is that waste is minimized, since resources are to be used again and again, as opposed to single use.

The store, located in the Hamra district of Beirut, does not actually sell food and beverages (with the exception of peanut butter and Moringa tea, we were told), but you can find detergents, beauty and hygiene products, jewelry, toys, bags, stationery, garden accessories, textiles, cutlery, pottery and kitchenware. Everything in the store is locally made in Lebanon with the exception of three products (wheat-made edible plates, coconut bowls and bamboo toothbrushes), and everything in the store is plastic free, toxic free, package free or comes in either a sustainable or biodegradable package. Its aim is to source local items as much as possible and to stock products that contribute to a circular economy. So for example, at the Eco-Souk you will find the traditional ‘miswak’ teeth cleaning twigs made from the Salvadora persica tree, known as ‘Arak’ in Arabic, that is sourced locally. You will also find plenty of crafts and accessories made from recycled materials by marginalised Lebanese and by Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

At Eco-Souk, customers buy the quantities they need (everything is weighed or sold in units), and they have three options to gather their goods:

1- They bring their own containers from home
2- They can buy a container from Eco-Souk for 1,000-2,000 Lebanese Lira (around 1 USD), which are recycled glass made in Tripoli, Lebanon
3- They can pick up and use (for free) from a stack of glass jars which customers have donated to the Eco-Souk (plenty of customers we were told have been inspired by the store’s concept and are offering to help to reduce waste).

Liquid Soap sold in Eco-Souk  (Picture courtesy of Recycle Lebanon)

The little store has been an instant hit (it is just 11 square meters). “It attracts both locals and out of town folks, who appreciate the merchandise and the ideology behind the store,” says the founder Joslin Kehdy. The store is set in a former ladies clothing shop and does not have a license to sell food and beverages, however, the second Eco Souk by Recycle Lebanon, which is set to open in a few months time in Gemmayze, will be selling food items too, adds Joslin. “The second Eco branch will also be a circular hub. So while we will have the Eco-Souk, we will also have different services and workshops to teach and demonstrate how a circular economy works. We will invite people to show their work, sell their merchandise and offer their services, which are all related to the practice of a circular economy.”

Eco-Souk in Hamra (picture courtesy of Recycle Lebanon)

A circular economy is at the heart of Joslin’s Eco-Souk concept. She wishes to remind people that it was the way of our ancestors, and that we should revive this tradition. “We are traditionally a repair culture, so we fix things. So we don’t need to buy more things. We always had produce that was organic, pesticide free and ‘baladi’ or local. We always made ‘mouneh’ (preserve) of cheese, fruits and vegetables from locally sourced seasonal ingredients. We don’t need plastic toothbrushes; the miswak stick is dentist approved for cleaning our teeth and it’s natural, same with our baladi olive oil soap. Our Middle Eastern traditions are eco-friendly, sustainable and healthy. We need to go back to them. Being eco-friendly is not an imported concept, it comes from our roots.”

Miswak sticks at the Eco-Souk (picture courtesy of Recycle Lebanon)

We could not agree more at The Wellness Project that the Middle East traditions are indeed rooted in sustainable practices! We also hope to see more zero waste stores start up and spread across the Middle East too. If you know of any that have actually opened in the region (and we have not heard about yet), please tell us about it. We would love to know! On a final note, we hope this article has inspired you to minimize waste in your homes, towards using and buying things more responsibly and thoughtfully. We also hope you encourage endeavors, such as Eco-Souk, who are working towards bettering our environment and taking us back to our more sustainable and traditional roots. Remember, every single effort to reduce waste counts!


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