Culture and Climate Change – Architecture and Urbanism

Original Unverpackt: Rubbish-Free Shopping

Design: NAU Architects Berlin (Michael Brown) Design: NAU Architects Berlin (Michael Brown)

A supermarket with no packaging – can it work? Two Berliners have a go at it.

When I was small I absolutely wanted to save the world. I had seen an idea of how that might work on television: in a series, a couple of environmentally aware children going shopping had simply left all the packaging in the store, to point up how much unnecessary rubbish we produce in daily life. I wanted to do that, too.

But my mother was less than thrilled. I was allowed to dispose of the additional carton containing the bag of corn flakes and the plastic wrap around the bananas. But she wouldn’t hear of bringing extra boxes and other containers along to fill with rice or noodles, let alone milk. Thus it happened that my enthusiasm for avoiding rubbish soon petered out. But now the episode crossed my mind once again when I read about “Original Unverpackt” in the newspaper.

The concept behind the supermarket, which will open this year in Berlin-Kreuzberg, has a lot in common with the yearning of my childhood eco-soul: packaging will be dispensed with. Shoppers fill jars, bottles and other containers that they have brought with them with products from large containers. Everything will be available from classics such as noodles, bread and vegetables to vodka and face creams. The founders plan to offer a total of 600 products – the assortment of goods is therefore about as large as a discounter’s. Customers who come by without planning in advance or have forgotten their refill containers can borrow them or resort to recyclable paper bags.

The two founders, Milena Glimbovski and Sara Wolf, had the idea one evening over wine when confronted with the overflowing rubbish pail in the kitchen, as they tell the story. Often such plans end up themselves in the waste paper basket. But Glimbovski and Wolf developed their idea into a business plan, which has now won several awards, among them a grant from the leading software group SAP and the German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs. This eased the start-up process for them. They have just collected the start capital for their store via crowd-funding: over 100,000 Euros have come together, as many individuals found the idea worthy of support and contributed financially, to receive coupons for visits to the store in return. It looks as though interest in packaging-free shopping does exist.

But what about hygiene? Simply placing loose foodstuffs in a store and letting everybody serve himself is not possible in Germany. To offer fresh bread and rolls, supermarkets quarantine them behind closed metal barriers from which customers have to laboriously manoeuvre them out with a pair of tongs. Just so no one comes in contact with un-packaged foods – that’s the main thing!

The founders say that this was in fact a challenge for “Original Unverpackt”, but that they have mastered it: on the one hand they use so called bulk bins – closed canisters with an opening below from which one can simply pour out noodles, for instance, or peas. There are other solutions for things like peanut butter, yoghurt or toothpaste: “We also use scoop bins – these are a bit like the boxes in sweets shops where one uses a scoop – or a dispenser pump systems.” The scoop bins are filled from large sacks and canisters, most of which come from small suppliers from the region. This point in the supply chain is not completely free of packaging, but the two founders promise that they vigilant about avoiding rubbish before the wares are in the store.

That sounds as though Milena Glimbovski, Sara Wolf and their now six-member team are well-prepared for the launch in autumn. I only have two small considerations: on the one hand, I ask myself if my mother wasn’t right when she said that going to the supermarket with a bag full of empty jars and other containers was just way too much trouble.

And on the other, the people behind “Original Unverpackt” are not the first to come up with the idea of packaging-free shopping: Unpackaged was the name of a little store I stumbled upon a year ago in London-Hackney. It looked just gorgeous with all the foods in large vats and no plastic. The store has now closed. Nevertheless, according to “Original Unverpackt”, the fault does not lie with the no-packaging concept: “Two thirds of the shop area was taken up by a restaurant and bar, and that’s what didn’t work out.” Nothing like that is planned for Berlin.

Translation from the German: Edith C. Watts

Goethe-Institut China
August 2014

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Juliane Wiedemeier
is a freelance journalist from Berlin and works mainly for the Prenzlauer Berg Nachrichten which she co-founded. She mostly writes about cities in general and Berlin in particular. She enjoys living in Berlin and likes to explore the myriad facets of the city, to write about them and to share them with others.