Nada Miller and Carr

Paper? Plastic? Or Nada? Waste-free grocery store aims to put a lid on ocean plastic

Shop to your zero-waste heart’s content at Vancouver’s new packaging-free grocery store

Brianne Miller wanted to help protect whales. So she opened a grocery store.

That makes more sense if you see it through her eyes: she saw that at the root of many ecological problems is our global supply chains. From plastic pollution and ocean noise to climate change and ocean acidification, marine environments are being hammered by the way we transport goods for consumption halfway around the world.

Miller figured that the best way to disrupt that damaging system was to open her own store that would minimize the harms of our traditional supply chains. The store, Nada, opens soon in Vancouver, offering package-free groceries, zero-waste products, focusing on short, uncomplicated supply chains.

It’s not perfect; Miller acknowledges that, operating in the modern world, she and her cofounders have have had to make compromises during construction and in sourcing their products. But as a way of saving the whales by opening a grocery store, it’s a strong start.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did this idea come from?

I come from the marine biology world, studying coral reefs and tropical fish, and then ultimately marine mammals, which is the work I did for my Master’s. I really got to see firsthand how global and widespread the plastic pollution problem was.

It was very eye-opening; every single beach that I’ve been on has been covered in plastic and I don’t think I’ve been on a single dive where I haven’t seen some sort of plastic in the water.

I guess for me on the personal side of things, in the field that I was in, there was definitely a lot of doom and gloom. I personally felt like we know a lot about what the problems are, but I wanted to do something to try and tackle the problem at the source as opposed to dealing with the consequences on the other end.

How did the idea change over the course of your planning?

I started out just wanting to open a store that focused more on socially responsible sourcing, a store that really looked at the supply chain. That’s where I realized that every problem I was seeing with the oceans was somehow tied to our food system. I’ve done work now on underwater noise and obviously that’s directly related to our global economy and how we’re shipping products around the world.

Farming is another big one that has a huge impact on the oceans, all the agricultural pesticides and fertilizers that run off and create dead zones. Overfishing and bycatch are obviously huge ones.

So I was like, ‘man, everything is somehow related to food.’

And so that’s where the idea for the store started. It was more of a store that thought about all these things in terms of how it’s sourced and what it sold. And then over time I learned more about the packaging problem, and plastic pollution in general and realized that that was a big component to this conversation as well.

You’ve taken a different approach with the actual construction of your building. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

The building is amazing. It’s a LEED Gold certified building, so the base building itself is actually built to the highest environmental standards that exist. It uses things like geothermal heat, it has UV-resistant windows, the way that the awnings and windows are designed is to let in the maximum amount of light. Everything is really energy efficient.

We’re trying to do as green of a buildout as we can. We are doing a ton of sourcing of secondhand and reclaimed materials. Everything from all of our fixtures to our café and snack bar, a lot of the wood items, we’ve been able to reuse a lot of drywall and pressboard. There was one big wall that needed to come down; instead of just demolishing it, which is what normally happens, we deconstructed it, so it came out in pieces and we were essentially able to reuse the entire wall to build all of our walls. We didn’t even need to purchase any new studs, we didn’t need to buy any new insulation, even the screws were able to be reused. It just takes time to handle it properly.

There are so many things that have stories…I like knowing where they came from.

How will Nada actually work?

The idea is that people will come into the store, they will grab their baskets and go to the tare station, or the weighing station. We are encouraging people to bring their own containers to refill with food. We have a bring-your-own-container policy that essentially outlines what is okay to bring, but essentially anything that’s clean — so that could be a Ziploc bag, could be a Tupperware container, could be a Mason jar a cloth bag, whatever people have on hand.

Essentially anything that anyone can use one more time before it gets chucked in the recycling or the garbage is a win in our book.

That ties into the accessibility conversation — we’re trying to make something very accessible to many people. A lot of people think ‘zero waste’ and they think of these really pretty Instagram accounts that have all of these fancy jars.

It doesn’t need to be like that at all.

Then we have a digital system that we’ve developed to make package-free grocery shopping faster and more efficient.

Other than that it’s like a normal grocery store without packaging. We have baked goods. We have produce. We have lots of bulk liquids — which are really hard to find — things like olive oil, honey, molasses, vinegar. We have a lot of zero-waste items — anything that’s a long lasting alternative to single-use disposable plastics — so stainless steel straws, containers, cloth bulk bags and cloth produce bags.

We’ve got compostable toothbrushes and toothpaste in refillable jars, laundry soap, dish soap — kind of everything you could ever need.

A huge part of what we do is actually supply chain innovation. What we’ve done is develop bins and a back-of-house system that makes that a little bit more efficient as well. We’ve designed bins that go directly to shelf — so we in many instances will send the supplier a bin, and then they refill the container. When it’s empty it goes to the back to get cleaned and then goes back to the supplier to refill again.

Miller and Carr in a pop-up shop at Patagonia in Vancouver. Photo by Amanda Palmer.

What are the things you’re most excited Nada won’t sell?

I mean, everything [laughs]…I want to say probably 90 or 95 per cent of the products that we sell are products that are traditionally packaged so we’re working with suppliers to reduce packaging, which is requiring a lot collaboration, obviously.

But there are some items that we’re working on that are really hard to get without packaging.

Things like chips and crackers are a really tricky one because of the freshness. Any kind of snack food is really tricky, but we do have a lot of awesome local suppliers. So we do have two or three local cracker suppliers that do inventory drops more often so things stay fresh, we’re working with a chip company, but instead of doing package-free chips all the time, we’ll probably do a fresh chip drop. It’s going to be an ongoing thing, sourcing new products, expanding what we offer.

What are the things that you’ve had to compromise on?

There were things like tile, for example; we searched high and low for used, simple white subway tile and we spent weeks looking for it and couldn’t find any. And so we ended up getting new tile. The refrigeration is something we actually decided to not get used, because it was near impossible to find matching pieces, and ones that fit the space. And then also we wanted to get energy-efficient appliances, and I wanted the warranties that came with them as well. There were little odds and ends — like the countertops had to be custom-made — but again, choosing to pay a little bit more for like a product that’s really long lasting and durable.

What are some of the barriers on the consumer side to get people to buy into this?

It’s a whole conversation about accessibility and price. Because of the way that we source — we source really high quality, good-for-people-and-planet products that are inherently more expensive to make — a lot of what we buy today, it doesn’t really reflect the true cost of that food.

So yes, the products that we sell are inherently a higher price point than a conventional grocery store, something like a No Frills. If you’re getting flour from No Frills, obviously ours is going to be more expensive, but we’re sourcing a local, organic made-in-B.C. flour. I guess with bulk items especially, that’s where there really is not a lot of transparency in any other grocery store — you’re lucky if they’ll say the country that a product comes from, but there’s zero information about where a bulk product comes from.

A lot of the barriers are perceived barriers — that it takes a lot of time and energy to shop this way. And it definitely does take time, but it’s just habit building like anything else, right? We all walk out the door with our phones every day and you don’t forget your phone. It’s a shift in habit to remember to grab your reusable bag that has a reusable napkin and a straw and some containers in it. It’s definitely not as complicated as people think, and that’s what our store is there for — to demonstrate that it really isn’t that complicated.

For example, we’ll have containers for free and containers for sale. If anyone comes into the store and doesn’t have containers on them, they have lots of different options so they can buy Nada-branded containers, they can buy upcycled containers or we’ll have free containers as well like normal recycling — things like glass spaghetti jars that will be sanitized.

If you don’t live in a city that has a place that you can go like Nada, what can you do to reduce packaging in your own life?

We always suggest that people start really small. Often people get caught up in wanting to do this whole zero-waste thing, and they try to tackle many things at the same time.

What we recommend is actually to start with one thing and then adding on from there. One of the first things that you can do is a waste audit. It’s essentially like a very quick look at the garbage you’re actually throwing out, like, ‘oh I’ve got lots of coffee cups, or lots of napkins, lots of bags’ or whatever it happens to be, and starting to tackle that one item you are throwing out the most.

Nada is opening soon at 675 East Broadway in Vancouver, B.C. Check the Nada site for details.

Jimmy Thomson is a Yellowknife-based freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe…

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