There was a time not so long ago when it was still possible to do your grocery shopping without filling your garbage can or blue box with single-use plastic packaging. This has become difficult or even impossible today, given the lack of bulk options or unpackaged products. However, with a growing plastic waste and pollution crisis, retailers must offer ways for their customers to get their groceries without trashing our planet. 

As part of Global Refill Week, we did a Canada-wide week of action from November 6th-13th, when our teams of volunteers and members of the public visited several supermarkets across Canada belonging to major chains such as Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro, Walmart and Overwaitea Food Group.

The objective? Spreading the word about the growing demand and urgent need for zero waste shopping options.

What’s #GlobalRefillWeek about?

So, we went through the aisles of the various supermarkets and tried to have our reusable containers filled with some groceries or take-out items. To highlight the lack of zero waste options, we also left placards on the shelves with messages reading:

“I wish this product was unpackaged.”
“I wish this product was offered in bulk” 
“I wish this product was offered in a reusable container.”

Would you like to place our placards in your own grocery store? Good news: a printable version is now available! Have a look at the bottom of this blog for instructions on how to proceed.

These Reuse Revolution activities allowed us to assess the options currently available to customers who wish to reduce their plastic footprint. And the situation is not encouraging.

Fruit and vegetables without packaging

In some stores owned by Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro and Walmart, there seems to be some movement towards less packaged fruits and vegetables. However, across the board there is still a tonne of work to be done, and it isn’t consistent across the stores owned by each chain.

For example, customers still need to make a choice between buying organic or consuming without packaging, since the vast majority of fresh organic products are offered in a plastic film. Plastic stickers and labels are also everywhere. This problem could be solved by laser labelling, misting systems and better organization in the fresh produce section.

✅ Progress! Various stores have equipped some of their produce sections with misting systems to keep vegetables fresh without the need for packaging.

Fail. All the grocery stores we visited still have a lot of pointless packaging in the fresh produce section and single-use plastic bags to put unpackaged produce in.

Misting system at Metro/Wrapped fruit at Provigo

Bulk options

Most major retailers offer limited bulk food like rice, flour, lentils, coffee and nuts. Those offerings are also offered in single-use packaging on shelves, so not reducing actual packaging use. We encountered refill oil at one location in Montreal, but otherwise refill liquid food products were not available. Other easily refilled liquids such as laundry detergent, shampoo or dishwashing soap are not offered in bulk, only in packaged form.

Even where bulk options exist, no store allowed weighing reusable containers for refill, and even where we convinced the take-out counter clerk to do so, the check-out system doesn’t allow for the weight subtraction from the price. Durable reusable bags and containers are not offered in bulk sections.

Progress! Some chains have said they intend to expand their bulk offering and make it cheaper than their packaged counterparts.

Fail. Bulk offerings are inconsistent and some stores of the same chain offer no bulk at all. Without the ability to weigh containers, existing bulk isn’t reducing plastic consumption.

Bulk station in Atlantic Superstore / Products that could be offered in bulk.

Reusable and returnable containers

Reusable and returnable containers are widely available in zero waste grocery stores and are an attractive option for items that cannot be presented in bulk such as some perishables. However, none of the supermarkets visited offered this option.

Progress! Some stores offer a couple products by brands that come in returnable jar. Loblaw has committed to trial reusable packaging for some products in Toronto stores in 2020.

Fail. Across the board, supermarkets lack reusable and returnable packaging for almost all possible products, and do not offer durable empties for refill in-store.

Refillable and returnable containers / Examples of products that could be offered in refillable and returnable bottles.

Refilling your reusable containers in some departments

Have you heard about how you can bring your own reusable containers to the supermarket and get them filled at the prepared food or deli counter? While various stores owned by Loblaw, Metro and Sobeys already offer this option, generally staff lack training, there are restrictions on the types of containers allowed, and self-weigh systems were not evident.

Our volunteer equipped with their refillable containers for #RefillDay in Halifax.

Now what?

Overall, this experience was valuable in providing an overview of the system that contributes to the plastic pollution crisis and the challenges retailers are facing. Many store managers felt concerned about the problem of overpackaging and the lack of a reusable alternatives. Many of them told us about the increasing number of requests for package-free options from their customers. But they are currently unable to implement the changes that would be necessary to reduce the sea of disposable packaging. It is clear that these issues must be resolved at the top. And yet we still haven’t seen the type of comprehensive plastic and disposable packaging policy that would lead to real changes in stores.

That’s where you come into play: mass mobilization is necessary to help our message reach the top! Sign our petition if you haven’t done so already.

If you want to organize your own Refill activity in your grocery store, it’s easy as 1-2-3!

Here’s how to proceed:

  • Download our placards, print them on both sides on 100% post-consumer recycled paper and cut them out.
  • Before you go to the grocery store, grab your placards, reusable containers and bags. If bulk options are available, try to weigh and fill your containers with the desired products. Otherwise, use the placards to get the message across!
  • Where to place the placards? 
    • “I wish this product was offered in bulk”: staples (rice, pasta, flour), snacks, candies, tea, coffee, spices, cleaning products,personal hygiene products (toothpaste, shampoo, shower gel), beverages, etc.
    • “I wish this product was unpackaged”: fruits and vegetables, bakery products. 
    • “I wish this product came in reusable packaging”: perishables (soups, sauces), frozen meals, beverages, chips, etc. 
  • Amplify your action! Take pictures of the placards on the shelves and share them on social media using the hashtags #ReuseRevolution and #BreakFreeFromPlastic. You could also geolocate your publication, and make sure to tag the company with your requests for more zero waste options. 

We’d love to hear more about your action. Email us at [email protected] or tag us on social media!

This week of action coincided with the release of a Greenpeace USA report, The Smart Supermarket, that presented various solutions currently being implemented around the world to go beyond disposable packaging and encourage the Reuse Revolution. Check it out!