London's first zero waste grocery store

A smorgasbord of ethical beliefs. Picture: The Guardian.

A smorgasbord of ethical beliefs. Picture: The Guardian.


In the past decade, the term #zerowaste has become as current and potent as ‘Save the whale’ in the mid-1970s, challenging consumption habits from the kitchen to the wardrobe and beyond.

The main culprit, arguably, is plastic: more than 9 billion tons of it have been made since the 1950s, of which most of it is still washing about in our systems. The same properties that make plastics so versatile in so many applications — its durability and resistance to degradation — also make them tragically difficult for nature to assimilate.

Images of beaches blanketed in single use bottles and swirls of rubbish trapping sea life across the world’s oceans are having their effect: transforming our perceptions of plastic from the ultimate convenience material into that of a substance that is literally suffocating this earth.

So Bulk Market, London’s first zero waste grocery store, is right on the money.

How our grandparents used to shop. Picture: Bel Jacobs.

How our grandparents used to shop. Picture: Bel Jacobs.

Set on Hackney’s bustling Kingsland Road, Bulk Market stocks fresh fruit and veg, dried goods and a small range of home supplies. Everything comes packaging-free so customers are encouraged to bring their own bottles, bags and pots; newbies and drop-ins can choose from empty glass jars, steel mess tins, reusable beeswax cling-film and wooden sporks.

And, before you tut and wonder how if you’re ever really going to lug glass jars over here, it’s worth remembering: this is pretty much our grandparents used to shop.

The philosophy of sustainable beliefs extends to the stock and beyond. All produce is certified organic by the Soil Association, from Langridge Organic, the UK's leading wholesaler of organic fresh produce.

Grains and dry goods come from co-operatives such as sustainable stalwart Suma, coffee from Hackney, bread from Luminary in Stoke Newington and cakes from the nearby Dusty Knuckle. In a small fridge, UK-produced cheddar and goat's cheeses glow nicely; barrels of organic washing up liquid, laundry detergent and all-purpose cleaner are ready to be decanted into glass bottles; bamboo toothbrushes, paper-wrapped toilet roll and dry dog food are handy adjuncts.

From transparency and cooperation and sourcing sustainably to trading for social purpose rather than profit, suppliers share Bulk Market's ethics. Luminary Bakery and Dusty Knuckle, for example, provide employment to women recently released from prison and young escapees from gang life, respectively.

When I visit, Bulk Market's tiny space is already almost full. Four young women, their enthusiasm almost palpable, browse raw wood shelves, read labels on retro glass cylinders containing spices, rice, lentils and chocolate buttons, gently sniff soaps made of essential oils and apologise profusely every time they bump into each other.

Bread from Luminary; fresh produce from Langridge Organics. Picture: Bel Jacobs.

Bread from Luminary; fresh produce from Langridge Organics. Picture: Bel Jacobs.

Founder Ingrid Caldironi used to work in retail marketing - for an oil company, no less. Her zero waste epiphany arrived two years ago when she came across an article on waste in a magazine; motivation grew stronger when she tried to make a difference:  “My grocery run every week was getting ridiculous. I needed to go so many different places: farmers markets to get my produce and olive oil and salt in a different place in different parts of London.

"I was travelling to get essentials. I’d ask local shops for low packaging or try to convince staff at the cheese counter in the supermarket to give me a piece of cheese in my own container and they were saying no because of health and safety,” she continues. “It was so disappointing, so frustrating."

Her experience shows how difficult it can be for an individual to effect change, particularly when the system works so hard to maintain the status quo. “Why did they make it so difficult?’ asks Caldironi. “I was just trying to be sustainable, using resources we already have, not creating waste. So I decided to create a place where it’s easy to be sustainable.”

But Bulk Market is also a sign of how much an individual can achieve, with time and passion. The current site is a crowdfunded pop-up but the future is a permanent location, in nearby Clapton, due to open before Christmas: 100 square feet of space fitted with discarded stage sets from the Royal Opera House and hosting a beehive and community composter.

Caldironi’s shop is not going to change the future but the ripple-out effect from the store will. “Most the people who come in say, thank you doing so much for doing this. I've been waiting for something like this for ages," she says, proudly.

As more and more people wake up to the sheer amount of increasingly precious resources ending in landfill, the more Caldironi’s model will become a norm. It’s a day to wait for, a day to celebrate. Till then, there's always Bulk Market.

Bulk Market, 494 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AE. Open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 - 19:00. Sunday: closed. 

Bulk Market is currently crowdfunding. Support the project here at SpaceHive. #bulkforlondon