food shopping waste

MIWA – buy food, not packaging

Only a tiny fraction of the world’s plastic waste gets recycled into new plastic – just 2%, according to the New Plastics Economy report. The majority of it goes into landfill, some of it is incinerated, and a whole third of it leaks into the natural environment. The biggest culprit is packaging, and there is a huge amount of research going into biodegradeable plastics, edible packaging, and networks for reuse.

Of course, there are other ways to buy food and other goods. Buying food on the street markets in Madagascar doesn’t involve much packaging. Rice, beans, and other dried foods are sold by the kapoka, a tin can that has become a basic unit of measurement. You can bring your own bag, or there’s a basket stall there if you forget. Here’s the snack aisle of a market in Antananarivo, with a variety of home-made crisps and snacks available by the canful:

Previous generations of British shoppers would have been able to buy things without packaging too. They would have gone to the grocer, joined the queue and ordered their items at the counter. There were packaged goods 150 years ago, but the basics of flour, sugar or tea could be bought by weight in specific quantities. If packaging was required, it wouldn’t be any more than a humble paper bag.

Those days are behind us. We have become rather used to the convenience of buying our food and other goods in neat off-the-shelf packages. You might come across shops that will sell food to you in your own containers, but they’re going to be niche. For Madagascar, the trajectory is towards greater convenience, hygiene, and standardisation, with the increased use of packaging that implies.

It’s hard to see Western consumers going back to bringing their own containers to the supermarket, which is presumably why most of the research is going into alternative packaging. But there’s one company that is developing a 21st century version of that old fashioned grocer. They’re called MIWA, an abbreviation of ‘minimum waste’. They’re based in the Czech republic and they won an innovation prize from New Plastics Economy a couple of weeks ago.

Their vision is to create a sales platform for dry goods that doesn’t involve packaging. They are designing an integrated system that includes modular bulk storage bins, a large dispensing unit, and an app that customers use to order their products.

You would still get your products from a supermarket, but instead of taking packets off a shelf, you would scan barcodes from a display of products and specify the quantity you wanted. Your foods are then dispensed into your own containers, reusable ones provided by the store, or biodegradeable packaging if you prefer – it’s your choice.

It’s a combination of old and new ideas. Someone has to package the customer’s goods, like those old grocers. But it’s a whole lot quicker – wholesalers provide the goods in modular capsules, making it quick and easy to measure out quantities. It’s still convenient for the customer, because the app can handle payments and there’s no need to check out. And you wouldn’t have to wait in line, as you can order in advance and they’ll be ready for you to pick up when you walk into the store.

There’s lots of detail on the MIWA website if you want to see how it works. They call it precycling – avoiding the packaging waste in the first place. I’m not sure you’ll be seeing one of their units in a supermarket near you any time soon, but I hope they can make it work.

8 comments

  1. This is an exciting development! Ideas like this need to be a part of the rebuilding of Dominica post Maria, as it focuses on building a more climate ready nation almost from scratch. My heart has been troubled by the prospect of garbage there – lots of aid coming in, where is all the packaging going? I thought about reaching out to Terracycle for a program… This is a great potential new business model for Dominica and the Caribbean region as a whole!

    1. It’s filled for you, rather than self-serve, so presumably the shop attendants could refuse to fill a container if it wasn’t fit for use. But it doesn’t need to touch anything, and it’s only dry goods. Should be fine.

      And you’d have to be a bit of a muppet to be reusing a plastic bag for raw fish, surely? Especially since the free supermarket plastic bag has clear exemptions for raw meat or fish.

      1. Well, we have plenty of muppets around. Although since germs are invisible to the naked eye unless the staff are going to scan your containers with a UV light how would they know it isn’t contaminated?

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