How a ‘Smart Supermarket’ could do away with plastic packaging

A hopeful report by Greenpeace envisions a future where supermarkets have gotten rid of superfluous waste.

The supermarket of the future will use smart technology to eliminate plastic packaging, to incentive the use of reusable containers, and to retain loyal customers. This is the message from Greenpeace in its latest report released on Tuesday, “The Smart Supermarket: How retailers can innovate beyond single-use plastics and packaging.”

The report asks what many of us have before: What exactly do supermarkets have to do to get rid of all the plastic? It spells out step-by-step solutions, from the moment a customer enters a store to when they get home, rethinking how each step is handled. While some features of the smart supermarket remain the same as the supermarkets we know now, others are radically different, and will require significant behavioural shifts.For example, fresh food need not be wrapped in single-use plastic anymore. There are other ways to keep it fresh, such as misting, and to create bar-codes, such as laser food labelling. Fresh foods in some parts of the world can be wrapped in natural plant materials. Not swathing fruits and vegetables in plastic has proven to reduce food waste (people can buy exactly the amounts they want) and to increase consumption (they can see it, and it looks delicious).

When it comes to staples, ingredients that we buy regularly, the key lies in reusable containers. From the report:

“In The Smart Supermarket, bulk-buying dispensaries and weighing scales allow customers to purchase the quantities they need and what they can afford. Customers dispense products into reusable containers that they have brought from home or that are supplied by the store.”

The same concept is applied to takeout food. We must transition either to bringing our own containers or to stores supplying reusable ones and having them cleaned by a third-party company. What I liked was the suggested use of rewards to get customers to bring their containers back and to keep shopping at a particular location, otherwise bringing back a container is just seen as an extra chore. The report says,

“Retailers should establish an effective deposit return scheme. The scheme needs to be easy enough to motivate customers and incentivise the return of containers without putting customers off with big deposits.”

Personal and home care products are another area to tackle, with an emphasis on package-free, ‘naked’ bar-based products, such as the ones offered by Lush and Unwrapped Life. There was no mention of my latest favorite, Blueland, which ships its cleaning supplies in dry tablet form (because everyone has water at home!), but it would fit right in.

At the checkout, the smart supermarket could offer a borrow-a-bag or rent-a-bag scheme, pay small deposits to take reusable bags home, and use online checkouts to increase participation.

The report is a hopeful one, offering solid and tangible examples of what is possible if we allow ourselves to think beyond the bag. Supermarket chains and owners must be willing to renovate their stores to accommodate these improvements, but the benefits would be felt quickly and broadly.

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