Will America Embrace Precycling?


Many businesses in Europe have embraced the benefits of precycling – will America ever catch on?

Precycling is the concept of eliminating trash before it is created. If you don’t use new plastic, paper or metal to begin with, you won’t have to dispose of it.

It’s been 20 years since the Environmental Protection Agency began a media campaign to introduce precycling, but it’s yet to catch on in any substantial way with Americans. Now, a new breed of mostly European store owners, who are as aesthetically sophisticated as they are ethically minded, are trying to change how we shop by presenting the market as a curated space. In an age in which we simultaneously expect and are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice at the grocery — this brand of whole-grain pasta or that one? — these stores offer something defiantly old-fashioned: one or two alternatives carefully selected by those in the know.

Other stores are offering items in bulk, allowing the customer to weigh and measure the exact amount they need. Still others are offering reusable bottles — customers pay a small deposit for the bottles; when they’re returned, they’re cleaned and recirculated. At one store in Italy, shoppers use disposable plastic gloves to grab fistfuls of spaghetti from glass-domed containers, or scoop smaller shapes with ladles.

Precycling offers a secondary reward as well, by making us re-see what we’re looking at, more thoughtfully considering our food rather than hoping what’s hidden behind paper and plastic is truly what we want.

Rethinking and reinventing groceries in the interest of the environment would require the cooperation of manufacturers, as well as consumers. Americans are like the Felix Unger of the retail economy, with a reputation for fastidiousness — that’s why so many products are packaged and shrink-wrapped in layers of protection: Nobody’s touched those coffee beans since Juan Valdez grew them. But we weren’t always so persnickety; we used to buy pickles or crackers or penny nails from bins. Big Grocery, like Big Pharma, might argue that packaging provides 21st-century security, and that precycling on a grand scale is impractical. Not true, say these European shopkeepers: Their places are updating the old American general store cracker-barrel approach, while making hygiene a priority.

So is America ready? Denver is about to find out when it gets Zero Market, co-founded by Lyndsey Manderson, a former high-school science teacher, whose new store will be located inside an old aviation hangar and will resemble a modern apothecary. The walls will be covered with reclaimed barn wood that’s been sanded and waxed. Rolling ladders to access higher shelves will make shopping a bit of a joyride rather than drudgery. Amber- and clear-glass jars will be painted with chalkboard labels so the contents are both evident and inviting. ‘‘We’re asking people to slow down when they come to the store and take time to figure out how much they need,’’ said Manderson told the New York Times. ‘‘And we’ll have a tracker that will let them see the amount of packaging that’s been diverted from landfill.’’ How long, then, until Brooklyn catches on?

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