“It didn’t use to exist. You wrapped individual eggs loose in newspaper”, she explained. At that point the market woman still referred to cardboard egg cartons as a “modern invention”. A scene at the Kaiser-Josef Markt in Graz, which says a lot. About our society. About the change which has taken place in recent decades. And about our self-image when it comes to packaging waste.


Who dares wins – shopping purposefully and with moderation


These days, not only the old but also the young know that things can be different. Just like Sarah Reindl and Verena Kassar, who actualised their dream and opened the first packaging-free shop in Graz: Das Gramm. A year ago they were the first ones in the regional capital to introduce this idea. In Austria, however, they have for a long time not been the only ones. The shopping trend of packaging-free supermarkets is taking off. They are shooting up like mushrooms in almost every major city. Local organic mushrooms, of course. Because no matter whether they are called “Bulk Barn” (the Canadian pioneer of packaging free supermarkets), “Das Gramm”, “Lunzer’s Massgreisslerei” or “Der Greißler – unverpackt.ehrlich”, they all rely on sustainable and organic farming and on regional and seasonal products.

How does it work? The goods are sold unpackaged and loose in large dispensing systems, usually cylindrical glass containers. Customers bring their own resealable cans, jars and bottles and fill them with the products themselves in the shop. In the best case, therefore, everyone only takes what they really need. Vegetables and fruit are put into hipster jute bags, rice or pasta into jars, cheese and sausages into Tupperware containers, detergent into glass bottles. But no matter whether they are made of glass, paper, or Tupperware, all containers are weighed before shopping, so that in the end genuinely only the contents are paid for. But what about spontaneous shopping, is that still even possible? Yes, it is. Because you can usually buy the recyclable packaging on the spot. Or just borrow it. All a bit like the market woman probably experienced things for decades at the traditional grocers. But from the outside there is nothing to remind you of the dusty “family shop” of old. Because there is a completely integrated design from the logo on the bins to the interior layout. All in the spirit of the new “eco-aesthetics”.



Time to strip down

In the USA if one sold almonds out of large bins instead of wrapped in plastic, approximately 33 million tonnes of packaging waste could be eliminated annually.

Packaging-free supermarkets are part of the answer to our massive waste problem. A “seventh continent” of plastic garbage is floating in the Pacific. And it is now larger than India. More hard facts? Each Austrian produces 587 kg of waste per year. Almost 20% of it is made up of packaging. Even if a large part of it is recycled in this country, it of course still consumes energy. The best thing from an ecological point of view is therefore to avoid waste. A wonderful example of this comes – where else – from America. Here if one sold almonds out of large bins instead of wrapped in plastic, approximately 33 million tons of packaging waste could be eliminated annually. And that’s just almond packaging!

A lot of garbage could be avoided, especially with shopping. So it is high time to strip down. It is not so easy, however, to convert a shop to sell unpackaged goods. And it costs from 4,000 to 10,000 euros, estimates Eva Brandt, who designed the facilities for packaging free shopping. This kind of supermarket also means more work for the shopkeepers. The containers must be cleaned meticulously and the expiry date of all goods must be regularly checked. Finally, everything must meet high hygiene standards. Nevertheless, the demand is high. Brandt is not surprised: “It was time. Consumers also find it annoying if each courgette is individually wrapped”.

Packaging-free supermarkets also make people happy. Because from now on no one has to take out the garbage.

Nevertheless, the success of packaging-free supermarkets is not guaranteed. Many have to close down after a few months. Like “Liebe und Lose” in Innsbruck or “Holis Market” in Linz. According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers consumer survey “Packaging-Free Food”, although 35% of people would shop in a packaging free supermarket, 63% would prefer a conventional shop in which they could buy unpackaged food along with other things. But as people who shop in “normal” supermarkets will know: too much choice can be agonising. Because often one can either have packaged organic vegetable, or unpackaged ones from normal farming. The reason for this seemingly paradoxical rule is, by the way, quite simple: Since there are fewer organic products and they have to be clearly labelled, organic foods are more often wrapped in plastic. In this area Ja! Natürlich has taken pioneering steps in recent years with Green Packaging and by using alternative packaging materials it has been able to reduce the consumption of plastic by more than 300 tonnes since 2011. For those who prefer to picture numbers visually: This is the weight of 100 average-sized elephants.

How do you recognise cool fruits and vegetables? By their tattoos.


A disadvantage of packaging-free shopping is that important information about the ingredients and their expiry dates is missing. Nevertheless: “In the minds of consumers a trend is emerging to which the trade and the packaging industry must respond if they want to retain customers and keep them.” says Gerd Bovensiepen, Head of Retail and Consumer Goods at PwC. In addition, the Swedes have already found a pretty clever solution to let them certify organic products on their natural “packaging” – namely, a light-tattoo that is burned directly onto the skin. Edible, natural and environmentally friendly. How does it work? The pigments of the outermost layer of skin are removed with a concentrated beam of light. This allows one to “write” on the skin.

The whole thing has been tested, but so far only with avocados and sweet potatoes, because raspberries, well, are just not as suitable for it. But just by getting rid of avocado packaging, Swedish food retailers can save 2,042 kilograms of plastic. This corresponds to the CO2 emissions of a car that drives around the world 1.3 times. Organic avocados with laser logos have also been tested in this country. As part of a pilot project, the plastic packaging in Billa, Penny and Merkur will be replaced by “Natural Branding”. A long-term vision for REWE is to use this technology to free as many other products as possible from plastic packaging. If the first tests succeed, mangos or melons, for example, will be “tattooed”.

Conclusion: What do packaging-free supermarkets, tattooed fruits and market women have in common? If you really want to, you can find solutions. Even if you have to think outside the box or look back in time. In many supermarkets the plastic bag has once again finally given way to the good old paper bag.