If you order groceries from the Bay Area startup Zero Grocery, the food shows up in packages that the company wants back. Common brands, such as Honey Bunches of Oats cereal or Kettle potato chips, come in glass jars. Baby spinach comes in glass jars. Yogurt and milk come in glass jars. When the containers are empty, you leave them outside your door (along with any ice packs) for a delivery person to pick up when your next order arrives, like a modern version of a milkman.
“I wanted to make it easier for as many everyday, hardworking Americans as possible to adopt a plastic-free lifestyle,” says Zero Grocery founder Zuleyka Strasner. Virtually all of the 1,110-plus items that the service offers are packaged in reusable containers, with a handful of products, such as meat and fish, in compostable wrappers. Customers pay $25 a month for membership, which includes unlimited free deliveries and avoids the need to charge deposits on the glass containers.
The company started by buying food from manufacturers in bulk packaging meant for large orders by hotels or airlines, and then repacking the food into reusable containers. Now, Strasner says, they’re also beginning to work with some manufacturers that use plastic-free packaging when the food is first packed. “The first thing that we realized was the existing supply chain doesn’t work,” she says. “We can’t just have something that starts its life in a glass jar at the beginning of the supply chain and just moves through the traditional supply chain. So we’ve had to both build the supply chain and build the supporting infrastructure and technology to enable all of this to happen.”
The startup tracks each product more closely than would happen in a traditional supply chain, where there are typically several steps of distributors in the middle before food reaches a consumer. It also tracks what happens to each package. “The reason the milkman or the milkwoman had dwindled from about the 1970s onwards is that it was a very labor-intensive and difficult industry to run,” she says. “But there was also no transparency on who had what bottles and where product was moving, and picking it up and sanitizing it. So there are many touchpoints that technology really enables us to push forward on.”
When each package is returned, it’s cleaned and sterilized before repacking. Strasner says that customers haven’t been squeamish about reusable packaging during the pandemic. “When you think of a typical brick-and-mortar grocery store, the products in a brick-and-mortar grocery store are being handled and touched by many more people, from production to distributors to grocery store workers on the floor to customers,” she says. “Our product, like any other product being manufactured in the U.S., is being manufactured or packed in a controlled environment.”
Zero-waste or plastic-free grocery stores are becoming increasingly common, and it’s likely that more delivery services will follow. In Brooklyn, the startup Wally Shop also offers zero-waste delivery. Loop, a platform working with large brands, is helping manufacturers test new reusable packaging. While some products are more challenging to package without plastic than others, Strasner says that it’s essentially possible to offer any product this way.
“There really isn’t anything that we cannot provide,” she says. “Plastic is a new phenomenon, and certainly from before the 1960s, it was commonplace for nearly all items to not come in plastic. So we’re just kind of returning back to some traditional packing procedures and packing our products combined with the technologies that we have underpinning them.”