Initiatives for the environment: Sweden’s first package-free store

4 mins read

By Ylva Holmberg

Back in the day, a close family member of mine used to tell me about when it was commonplace to bring a milk bucket to the local food market. I remember how I would reflect upon that, since I grew up with packaged food seeming like a necessity. It still seems difficult to not consider packed food at all, since the sortiment of many grocery stores consists of nothing but goods wrapped in plastic. However, there are recent initiatives aiming to decrease the negative impacts of packaging. In this article, Rowan Drury – the initiative holder of the first package-free store in Sweden – will share her ideas about possible changes and choices connected to packaging.

Today, the debate concerning the environment seems to be more vital than perhaps ever before. Movements such as the school strikes of Greta Thunberg receive global attention  and green parties are currently raising arguments to receive support in the European Parliament elections.  Meanwhile, there are parallel voices denying the impact of human action upon climate change. President Trump, for example, stated in 2018 that he was not convinced that rising temperatures were caused by human activity.

However, in the European Parliament, there have been recent political initiatives aiming to decrease the impact of human action by tackling plastic waste, which is viewed as an important environmental hazard. In March 2019, the EU decided to ban common plastic items such as straws, cutlery and plastic plates by 2021. Plastic waste has a major impact on the shore lines and oceans. The truth is, actually, that there could be more plastic waste than fish in the oceans by 2050!

It is clear that political initiatives could affect the negative impacts of packaging, but how can choices made by local entrepreneurs affect people’s everyday choices regarding packaging? Gram opened in 2016 and was at the time Sweden’s first package-free store selling food and household products. Rowan Drury is the founder. She is originally from Britain, but has lived in Malmö for many years. Rowan has always been environmentally conscious but she did not always relate her personal choices to her impact on the environment. The change came when she read an article about a woman from New York – Lauren Singer – who was able to fit two years worth of trash in a small glass jar.

– That was a light bulb moment for me. And from there I started to change my consumer habits in order to create less trash and spit less back out into the world. So, it started as a kind of life experiment, to see what I could change so my trash and recycling bins didn’t fill up so fast. It worked in some areas of my life; swapping bottles of shampoo for bar soap, using fresh lemon juice to clean the kitchen and shopping second hand, for example.

When it came to changing her packaging habits in the food market, she became frustrated, because she found few alternatives to packed food.

– As consumers, we have very little choice when it comes to shopping with minimal packaging. Supermarkets, where most of us shop are full of plastic wrapped products, so it’s very hard to avoid. I heard about “zero waste” shops in Germany where everything is sold in bulk, and I went to visit one in Berlin. From here, there was no turning back. Sweden was getting its first zero-waste food shop.

Her store, Gram, became her own initiative and aims at contributing to environmental change and  creating possibilities for consumers regarding packaging options. Meanwhile, she says, packaging is only part of a bigger picture of personal choices.

– Packaging is really quite low down when it comes to climate impact, under flying and eating meat, for example. It’s about “good” choices, which might mean trying to reduce unnecessary packaging, it might mean choosing plant-based over meat, it might mean choosing locally produced, or it might mean choosing organic over non-organic, even if it is in packaging.

She thinks that the interest for the environment and packaging-issues has increased. According to Rowan, social media, TV-programs and activists play an important role when it comes to creating awareness about the environment and in spreading the importance of the issue. Meanwhile, she underlines the importance of bringing the issue closer to people, to make change relatable and to create personal motivation.

– For most people it’s hard to change a behavior unless it is for something that directly affects you, and climate change is still a relatively abstract issue that we don’t experience yet.

One way to create awareness, she says, is by talking about the environment. Especially if people with influence are the ones talking. She does talk as much as she can, to as wide an audience as possible, to raise awareness, she says. But she also says that there are other initiatives needed, such as research on different alternatives, as well as new shops which can help create awareness.

Gram is an example of such an initiative. A store with a concept which was standard issue a century ago, but that lost its modernity with the increase of the packaging culture. Rowan Drury thinks that stores like Gram definitely will have an important place in the future market.

– Our hope for the future is that package-free options become more widely available and normalised in supermarkets, cafes, shops and peoples’ homes. We hope that Gram has an impact in starting this change. We see Gram, and the other zero waste shops round the world, as much more than a physical shop. We are change makers, activists, discussion starters, and the beginning of a more sustainable way to buy the one thing we all need. Food.

Ylva Holmberg studies at the Master Programme in Human Rights in Uppsala and journalism at Stockholm University, JMK. She is also a social worker and her aim is to combine these academic interests into a meaningful job where she can make a meaningful difference. In her spare time she enjoys being creative, to day-dream about future adventures and to spend time on a yoga mat from time to time. She enjoys a good conversation with a friend, a good cup of tea and to learn about new things!

Illustration: Paulina Cederskär

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