‘Whole Foods on wheels’: Meet plastic-free grocery start-up Precycle Pantry

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As major supermarkets around the world grapple with the implications of what a plastic-free transformation would actually entail, several smaller players are building their businesses to be sustainable from the ground up.  Most consumers are now comfortable with taking their own bags to the checkout, but are they prepared to take their own reusable containers to fill up on unpackaged essentials such as flour, nuts, shampoo, and oats? Some of the  larger chains are experimenting with th

ith this format: Australia’s Woolworths and Coles have both launched small-format stores that let customers use their own containers to purchase certain products. Beyond the major chains, however, customers are finding a number of new, smaller players willing to help them live a low-waste lifestyle. 

In Australia, ex-tech worker Carolina Felton started her ‘Whole Foods on wheels’ concept Precycle Pantry after realising she wanted to help people live a healthier life. 

After seeing similar services in London, Felton wondered why a zero-waste grocery shop on wheels wasn’t being executed in Australia.

“People book in time for us to visit them, and they can stock up on over 100 products with their own containers from their homes. They’re shopping for zero waste, there’s no plastic involved,” Felton told Inside Retail. 

“Reducing waste is a massive part of the global crisis that we’re living through. People are talking about saving the planet, but the planet will survive – I’m saying, ‘Let’s save ourselves.’”

Precycle Pantry offers shoppers the chance to buy everyday items, such as shampoo, dishwashing powder, and tooth brushes, alongside staples such as oats and legumes, out of the back of its van, nicknamed ‘Pablo’. 

The business currently operates only within certain parts of Melbourne, but Felton plans to expand her operations throughout the city as it takes off. Already, Felton is seeing a wider variety of people shopping through her service. 

“It’s really nice to see people who have thought about shopping without packaging, but haven’t done so because it can feel daunting,” Felton said. 

“But my advice is always to start small and simple. We’re all individuals, but collectively we can actually change things.”

A slow supermarket

Last week, global businesses including Aldi, Ikea and Walmart signed onto a UN-backed treaty to end plastic pollution and to create an ambitious and more effective circular economy across the international supply chain – where plastic never becomes waste or pollution. 

With the circular solutions that are currently in place, a global supply chain with near-zero plastic waste would not be achievable until 2060, the treaty’s vision statement noted. 

A growing number of supermarkets around the world are trying to utilise a more sustainable supply chain, and are inviting customers to bring their own bags and containers to help solve the plastic crisis: Hong Kong’s Slowood, for one. 

Inspired by a zero-waste community store in New Zealand, where local businesses could sell their own zero-waste products, Slowood founders Jeff and Dora Chen decided they wanted to bring this concept to their home city of Hong Kong. 

At Slowood, customers can bring their own containers to stock up on pantry staples and shop online for sustainable homewares and organic produce, such as coffee, tea, and milk. 

“Our mission is to rebuild the connection of our community with nature, and to combine a sustainable lifestyle and organic grocery items in one place,” Jeff Chen said at the MarketingPulse conference earlier this year. 

“This concept is very rare in Asia, but it’s getting more prevalent for people in Hong Kong to shop more sustainably, so we have hope for a better future for the next generation.”

Chen noted that Slowood’s goal, similar to Precycle Pantry, is to make it easy for people to start making changes, and to encourage them to start small. However, one of the main barriers of entry to ‘eating well’ has always been price: something Chen is acutely aware of. 

“Price has been the key reason why organic produce hasn’t really succeeded in Hong Kong over the past decade, but we found that in places like Europe, organic ranges were actually quite affordable,” Chen said. 

“So, when we started to evaluate why Hong Kong had such an issue, we realised we had to focus on more than just retail to make Slowood work. We had to make direct contact with each of our suppliers and try to get their support on our project.”

This has led Slowood to source  many of its sustainable products from overseas, largely New Zealand, to keep consumer costs down while the Hong Kong supply chain catches up.

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