The packaging design industry has long been embroiled in a battle with sustainability and environmentally friendly practices. It doesn’t take a Greta Thunberg level of concern for our planet to understand that packaging can create an immense amount of waste, with certain materials being particularly harmful. Husband and wife duo Jessica Walden and Chris McGuire are addressing this plight head on with Amis de la Terre, their new zero-waste market in Costa Mesa, CA.
Walden and McGuire became concerned with the prevalence of microplastics while examining water samples at UC Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science, where they met. “We have spent countless hours looking at water samples from our local beaches and finding microplastics in every single sample,” they share on their website. Instead of despairing, they were inspired to do their part. “One of the best ways to make a difference is through action!”
For them, action took the form of Amis de la Terre, a refill-style grocery store that eliminates plastic packaging from the purchase of pantry staples. “We present to you an easy, affordable, and enjoyable environment in which you can get what you need without contributing to the waste cycle,” their website statement continues.
The market is a single-room storefront in Southern California filled with canisters of all kinds of organic pantry food items from which customers help themselves. Shoppers can bring their own jars to refill or buy them directly from the store. To learn more about their mission and the designing of their brick and mortar, I engaged Walden in a thoughtful brief conversation you can read below.
What did you and Chris have to factor into the thought process for Amis de la Terre to ensure it truly produces zero waste? What solutions and hacks did you create or adopt to circumvent typical wasteful grocery store practices?
While our name might suggest a completely zero-waste lifestyle, it is very difficult to achieve that in modern society. We wanted to use the name “zero-waste” to promote our goals for both zero food waste and zero packaging waste. In order to achieve both of those ideals, it would require direct farmer-to-consumer foods, which is quite challenging in an urban area. So, we purchase bulk bags of products in paper packaging wherever possible (25-50 pounds). The paper bags are fully recyclable and biodegrade completely because they are made of only natural materials.
If we are unable to source a product in paper packaging, we will buy a 50-pound plastic bag of, say, brown sugar. In doing so, we greatly reduce the typical packaging associated with buying 50 singular one-pound packages of brown sugar that are in plastic. In addition, because all of our products are sold by weight, it allows customers to buy as much or as little as they need.
In this way, we are working to eliminate so much of the food waste that is produced in the typical household. We have measuring cups and spoons so customers can buy the exact amount of flour they need for a new recipe they’re trying, instead of buying a pound of coconut flour and using it once and forgetting about it at the back of their pantries. So they save money while reducing food waste.
What are the main ways you’ve seen the packaging design industry making strides toward more sustainable packaging? Alternatively, what are the biggest challenges the industry still faces?
There are many groups of scientists and inventors working toward developing sustainable packaging. As of right now, they have not been able to develop a type of packaging that acts like plastic that can naturally biodegrade in a landfill the way a paper bag might. Because paper is a natural material, it will break down into organic components quickly and easily with water and heat. To date, the “compostable plastic” or “plant-based plastic” is just that—compostable (in an industrial composter) and plant-based (derived from corn or soy instead of petroleum). However, it takes just as long to degrade as regular plastic does, and it never can fully degrade into organic components because it is a synthetic material.
For me, the best options are glass and paper, but there is so much lobbying from the oil/plastics industry that plastic remains the cheaper material for most people and businesses (even though its lifetime cost is exponentially higher than both paper and glass, and it’s infinitely more difficult to recycle).
The biggest challenge is to develop a material that is completely biodegradable the way that paper is, and that can preserve freshness the way that plastic is able to. Alternatively, people can alter their habits and use purchasing power to shift the market toward glass and paper packaging.
Do you see the zero-waste, refillable market model catching on in a bigger way in the years to come? What needs to happen for that dream to become a reality?
I do see these refill shops taking off. I think the best way for them to succeed and capture as many people is for there to be one in every neighborhood— the return of the local mom and pop shop, in a sense. Part of the fun of owning the store has been our regular customers. We know their names, we say hello, we chit chat. That sort of aspect is lost in large chain grocery stores. It makes shopping so much more fun and personable. It reminds me of when I lived in France and you’d go to the butcher, the cheese shop, the spice store, etc., and each shopkeeper knew who you were and would ask about your family, and you could get advice on how to cook this or that ingredient. I think we all want that, deep down; it’s so much more pleasant than heading into a big box store packed with strangers and not having a single conversation.
For this to become a reality, we need to remind people of the positive experience that shopping small can be. Supporting small businesses builds your community. Finding passion in your local community will drive support for small businesses like these. If more people knew what a difference shopping without plastic could make, I think they’d be more likely to come here. Education is definitely paramount.
With education as such an important pillar of the Amis de la Terre shopping experience, what are the ways in which you edify your customers?
We have a little bottle of microplastics from the Atlantic Ocean that catches people’s eyes and we use that to demonstrate the prevalence of plastics in the ocean. It usually leads to much larger conversations. In addition, people will ask us how we got into this business and we explain to them that we have worked in an oceanography lab and see so much plastic in our samples, so we can establish trust and authority on the environmental impacts of plastic.
Many customers come in already concerned about the impacts of plastic on their health, so conversations tend to start pretty organically. It definitely feels like we are better able to communicate science and environmental issues more easily than we could from isolated inside a laboratory.
In terms of the design of your brick and mortar, what were your main goals for the space and how did you achieve those?
The design was dreamed up by me and brought to reality by Chris. He had some previous experience with small projects and had helped his dad build their house while he was in high school, but nothing like this. He really took it on and went for it. He’s very meticulous.
We wanted to do as much as we could ourselves because we had a very tight budget, so it was sort of necessary. We repurposed our wedding tablecloths for the curtains on our counters, and our centerpieces are the cut champagne bottles with dried flowers that decorate the top shelf.
I lived in the south of France for two years, where I got my master’s degree through the Sorbonne in Paris. There are so many more open-air markets and shops like this in Europe in general. They are still tied to the small business owner model, so I wanted the shop to reflect my Francophile nature and be warm and welcoming for customers. Also, we couldn’t afford a very large unit, so we tried to design it in a way that would maximize space.