Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Bring your own boxes and jars to Berlin's Original Unverpackt, an eco-conscious business model that saves resources—and money.
No cardboard, no cellophane, no throwaway plastic trays, and no brands: Berlin’s newest supermarket is certainly a step away from the usual neighborhood grocery store. Opened last Saturday, Original Unverpackt (the name translates to “Original Unpackaged”) is a novel shop in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood that has dispensed entirely with disposable packaging. Granted, the term “supermarket” might be a little grandiose for this small but tightly packed store, but the concept’s legs are as long as the store’s frontage is narrow. Not only is a minimum-waste grocery store a canny business idea in a country that’s packed with green-conscious consumers, it’s also an interesting pilot project relevant to any city trying to cut their landfill and recycling burden.
The idea works like this: All of Original Unverpackt’s dry goods—rice, cereal, spices—are stored in large dispenser bins, and customers fill containers they have either brought with them or purchased in the store. Liquid goods such as juice or yogurt are sold in jars or bottles with a deposit on them (already an all-but-mandatory system in Germany anyway). There is no minimum limit on how much customers buy, and to ensure that they get a fair deal, the containers that customers bring are weighed and marked accordingly when they enter the shop. Around 80 percent of the store’s products are organic, and while the origin of each product is listed next to the price per kilo, no brand-name products are sold.
Just four days in, the store already seems to be functioning pretty well. Sure, early reports suggest that there’s a mild eccentricity to what’s for sale. As yet, there’s no meat or cheese (problems working out a packaging-free system for these, perhaps?), but you can get chewable toothpaste tablets, an essential staple for any home. On the plus side, the brand-free policy doesn’t seem to have led to only single, generic choices being offered; the store generally stocks several types of everything they sell. If customers use the shop regularly, then the potential to cut the amount of packing they have to throw in the trash is potentially vast. What makes the idea such potential gold dust, however, is not just that it’s a green-friendly idea. Crucially, this is a strain of eco-consciousness has the ability to pass on bargains to the consumer.
This is key, helping to avoid a common risk with projects of this type. If greener solutions aren’t affordable enough, they may end up underlining the sense that living a supposedly pared-down, less wasteful life is essentially a lifestyle hobby for people with enough spare cash to play at green dress-up. But if the Berliner Zeitung's verdict is anything to judge by, many or most of Original Unverpackt’s products cost a little less than they would at the average German grocery store. This is how it should be, given that the store’s wholesale prices don’t have to cover the cost of packaging or of feeding major brands’ hefty marketing budgets.
Admittedly, the store’s organic specialism, while it’s in keeping with the project’s concern for more environmentally conscious consumption, does lift it slightly out of the mainstream, even in a country of organic-food junkies like Germany. As a pilot project for a new kind of retail however, the concept is pretty exciting. As a carrot for the business itself, the bring-your-own-containers system is also likely to induce a degree of customer loyalty. If you have paid upfront for a set of appropriately sized Tupperware, you may well be tempted to get your money’s worth out of it by taking it back for regular refills.
Already riding a generally positive wave, Original Unverpackt expects to break even by the end of winter, and is already planning a second Berlin store. Don’t be surprised if copycat stores like this start cropping up in other cities, or if the concept gets refined further. Who knows? Maybe the store can move on from deposits into glass jars and go straight to pouring yogurt into people’s mouths.