Sustainable Shopping in a Plastic-Wrapped World.
An interview with the Source Bulk Foods.
By Kimberley Nuttall-Smith
There’s no way around it: life is getting faster. And with each passing year, the pace quickens, the pressure intensifies and we rely increasingly on convenient solutions to complete our daily tasks. The giant supermarket chains of today reflect this growing urgency, hastily appealing to our need for the quick and easy: pre-chopped this, ready-to-cook that, bags of things, packets of stuff. They have everything that you could ever need (and a whole lot more) beneath a single roof and all of it comes in the most convenient form possible. But what does this mean for our consumption habits?
Or more importantly, what do our consumption habits mean? Australians are the second highest producers of waste per person in the world, only behind the US. Through our shopping and consumption, we manage to use 5 billion single-use plastic bags a year, which by the way, are each only used for an average of 12 minutes. That equates to 13 million daily, or, to give you a visual idea of their impact, 20,700 tonnes in landfill annually. That is to say, that thanks largely to our drive for convenience, and shopping outlets’ willingness to provide it, we senselessly dump 429,000 plastic bags in landfill every hour, which can take between 20-1000 years to finally break down. This is a plastic pandemic.
But what can we do about it?
For a while, on my way to the supermarket, I’d pass a shop and through its windows I would see row upon row of bulk food bins bursting with powders and granules and bits and pieces. When I finally ventured inside one day, I discovered all the goodies your pantry could ever dream of. Only, in stark contrast to any supermarket or even health food store, I couldn’t see a shred of plastic or packaging around.
The Source Bulk Foods, I have since learned, is a franchise with sustainable shopping at its heart and a driving philosophy of reducing waste. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to speak with them about their story, their mission and the future of sustainable shopping.
While the first Source Bulk Foods shop opened officially in 2012, the idea behind it began brewing when founders, Emma and Paul Medeiros, left their corporate Sydney lives to open a health food shop in 2007 in Mullumbimby. For the couple, it was an opportunity to passionately supply their new community with fresh, local and healthy produce. But before long, it became painfully obvious that as organic and nutritious as their products were, they all tended to come heavily packaged. With the environment, as well as health, at their hearts, they moved towards selling foods in bulk and thus, the Source Bulk Foods came to be. “Our drive is to reduce plastic and waste. It’s the reason we started and the reason we love what we do,” says Paul Medeiros.
Since its inception, the Source has grown to be Australia’s largest bulk foods provider, with 44 stores around the country. And this is great news, not just for founders Emma and Paul, but for all of us. Thanks to the Source, and other bulk stores around, shopping sustainably has been made a lot easier and more accessible.
As Sharon Barrett – owner of the Source Bulk Foods’ Gold Coast store – explains, “It’s less stressful as there aren’t 15 different packets of chia seeds to choose from, just one.” Also, “You buy only as much as you need. If you come across a recipe that has say Kamut flour, you just need to buy the amount you need and not the entire packet of a product that you may not use again. If you also bring your own containers and fill them in store, you can just take them home and put them straight into the pantry so [it] saves you time as well.” Thus, the Source helps guide us all back to basics: buy what you need, only what you need and leave no trace of it.
Importantly, this focus on simplicity and sustainability is echoed throughout everything that the Source does behind the scenes as well. It’s not enough that in the last four years, they’ve save 45 million plastic bags from distribution. Nationally, the group is working towards “a totally plastic free process,” according to Barrett. They receive their stock in thick paper sacks, woven sacks, boxes and large plastic bags which they reuse, endeavouring to find multiple uses for all packaging. Given that the average plastic shopping bag is used only for 12 minutes, such practice is extremely important. Their woven sacks, for example, are donated to a local rider’s disability group for selling manure.
But their focus on sustainability extends beyond their own processes. To date, according to Paul Mederios, the Source has influenced 40% of their supplying manufacturers to remove plastic and non-recyclable materials from their packaging not only in their supply to the Source, but to the Source’s competitors as well. Given the scale of commercial production and subsequent waste, these kinds of environmentally and socially aware business practices play a pivotal role in our collective movement towards reducing waste. And as consumers, we too need to increase our awareness.
On a personal level, founders Emma and Paul, live and breathe sustainability and are constantly thinking and talking about ways to reduce waste in their own lives. “We have so much more to do and so many more to educate,” comments Paul on the issues he and his wife are so passionate about. For all of us following in their footsteps, it’s about making positive changes within our own means. Barrett advises that we take small and manageable steps to improve the sustainability of our lifestyles. Reusable coffee cups, home-made cleaning products and avoiding plastic at the supermarket are all great ways to begin consuming more consciously. “If you are starting a waste free lifestyle, I always suggest to tackle one thing until it becomes a habit and then tackle the next.”
Simply exercising our power of choice can provide great momentum for positive shifts in the industry, such as those the Source is pushing for. In choosing to cross the street and shop in bulk with our own reusable containers, we are choosing to funnel our buying power in a more sustainable direction. And although it oftentimes seems that the impact of our own personal consumption habits is weightless beside the magnitude of supermarket chains and enormous corporations, consider this: each of us in Australia sends an average of 690 kilograms of waste to landfill annually. Our choices matter.