Zero-waste markets

The Lieutenant Governor stands in front of the unboxed Market sign with the co-owner Michelle Genttner

Food and family
When Michelle Genttner and her husband, Luis Martins, were planning to open a community grocery store in Toronto last year, the couple knew they didn’t want it to be a typical supermarket. After owning a gastropub for seven years, they were aware of the excessive food and packaging waste that is generated every day. They both grew up in agricultural communities, hers in southwestern Ontario, and his in southern Portugal. “We were raised to recognize and appreciate our food and where it comes from: be it trees, gardens, streams, or pastures. Food and family are intrinsic in both of our memories,” they wrote.

Zero-waste shopping
The couple purchased a small grocery store in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood and launched Unboxed Market, the city’s first zero-waste market. To create their sustainable business, they transformed the space and its stock. Customers are asked to bring their own containers and are encouraged to reduce food waste by buying only what they need. Unboxed Market offers prepared foods, fresh produce, and dry goods, and includes a café, a cheese and charcuterie counter, and a butcher counter with Ontario-grown products. Nearly all of what they sell is locally sourced and package-free. Biodegradable paper and reusable packaging are available for those new to the zero-waste shopping experience.

An image of the store with two aisle of products including a meat counter

Inside the Unboxed Market

Increasing awareness
Recent statistics reveal that the average Canadian generates over 900 kilograms of waste every year, and that with increasing public awareness, consumers are looking for ways to lower that number. In many regions of the province, zero-waste grocery stores have been enthusiastically welcomed by eco-conscious communities. Unlike traditional bulk-food stores, they offer fresh, ready-made, refrigerated, and frozen items. Nu Grocery in Ottawa has opened two zero-waste stores since 2017. In Waterloo, Zero Waste Bulk sells Ontario-grown produce and locally made sustainable items. After initiating popular pop-up locations across Toronto, Bare Market recently opened a new storefront location in the city’s Danforth neighbourhood. The Nickel Refillery is encouraging people in Sudbury to embrace zero-waste shopping through community engagement and workshops.

The Lieutenant Governor stands in front of a counter at the Unboxed Market with the co-owner

The Lieutenant Governor stands with the co-owner Michelle Genttner

A waste-free journey
While most products at the zero-waste markets are sold without packaging, and single-use plastics are avoided in favour of recyclable, compostable, and reusable materials, the waste savings go far beyond what is found in retail shops. Through collaboration with suppliers, producers, and farmers, waste is also being minimized along the supply chain. Over the past year, Unboxed Market says it has saved the equivalent of more than 20,000 single-use jugs and containers. Co-owner Michelle Genttner told Eat North that the store’s accomplishments are a direct reflection of Toronto’s waste-free journey: “Toronto has an active and vocal zero-waste community. Along with the early adopters, the neighbourhood has really embraced this concept.”

A photo of the many containers of dry goods that shoppers can fill their own home-brought containers with in an aisle of the Unboxed Market

An aisle of dry goods in the Unboxed Market

Throughout my travels across the province, I am always searching for examples of sustainable living to share with Ontarians. Often, the concept of sustainability can feel large and burdensome. A project or goal might take years to accomplish along with requiring collaboration on a wide scale.

Ontarians care about sustainability and celebrate innovation. When I visited the Unboxed Market, Toronto’s first zero-waste grocery store, I saw first-hand how little packaging is truly needed for many of the products we use daily.

These zero-waste markets are dedicated to reducing waste and encouraging change and they demonstrate easy and fun ways to shrink our environmental footprint. Taking sustainability into our own hands, we see the impact, from environmental stewardship to inclusive economic prosperity. It is also something we can each do an individual scale.  The option to use our personal purchasing power to encourage companies, supply chains, and manufacturers to think more carefully about their role in environmental stewardship is incredibly rewarding. Offering waste-free options for so many of the population’s basic necessities is a wonderful way to re-shape the way we approach consumption.

It is also worth noting that these initiatives address the third element of sustainability – building social and cultural cohesion. These operations often become central to communities. By supporting those in our neighborhoods we actually meet and come to better understand those with whom we share the daily tasks of life. These stories are examples of the small and effective steps we can all take to build a more sustainable and resilient future.