How Tower Hamlets’ first zero waste food shop on Mile End Road is changing consumer habits and letting us ‘pick and mix’ our way to more sustainable living.
Are you ever frustrated by pointless supermarket packaging? Or annoyed when you have to buy a whole kilogram worth of lentils when you only need 250 grams?
These are shopping habits that we’ve come to accept when visiting our local supermarkets, but the Queen Mary Zero Waste Shop is handing control back to consumers, enabling us to cut down on food and plastic waste while sticking to a budget.
The largest zero waste shop in London and the only one in Tower Hamlets, the Queen Mary zero waste shop is located on Mile End Road, just beyond the park on the right hand side of the street as you walk away from Mile End underground station towards Stepney.
Though it is part of the University campus, the shop recently opened a new door onto Mile End Road making it easier for environmentally conscious customers from Bow, Mile End, Stepney Green and beyond enter the shop directly from the street.
The store aims to break down barriers and change perceptions of zero waste shopping which is often seen as expensive and inaccessible to customers accustomed to their supermarkets, who have yet to roll out adequate zero waste options.
So what exactly is a zero waste shop?
It’s a shop that enables you to buy all your store cupboard and household essentials completely package-free. Customers can bring their own container or pick one up for free in store and pay by weight for the exact quantities they need.
From beans, pulses and lentils to environmentally friendly cleaning products, the shop’s varied vegan offering has everything you need to leave your kitchen fully stocked, with a few added treats thrown in for a shopping experience that you won’t find in Tesco.
According to store manager Mohammad Akbar, the vegan pick and mix section is a favourite with customers young and old, because who ever said pick and mix was only for the cinema?
As you fill your containers with rice and pasta from the large food dispensers it’s hard not to be tempted by the smell of sustainably sourced ground coffee beans and freshly baked goods coming from the hot food and drinks counter. If you do get peckish be sure to try the vegan sausage roll which we hear is even better than Greggs’.
Much more than just a supermarket, the shop also provides vegan recipe cards, and recently held a competition to find a lunch recipe for one that used the least ingredients without sacrificing on flavour or nutrition.
‘We wanted to unlock the creativity that comes with cooking while being mindful of the planet,’ says Akbar: ‘It’s really amazing what you can do with so few ingredients.’
And what about the cost?
For many, the expense is seen as the main barrier to zero waste shopping, but Queen Mary’s shop is dispelling this myth one refillable bottle of oat milk at a time.
Due to the superior quality of products and ingredients, some items can be more expensive than big supermarket chains, but most zero waste solutions are actually cheaper in the long run.
Let’s say you want to make a red lentil soup for dinner (an idea for tonight perhaps?), instead of purchasing a 500 kilogram bag when the recipe only calls for a fifth of this, you are in control of how much, or how little, you buy and spend. Therefore, your daily spend will be cheaper and you won’t run the risk of your leftover lentils expiring and producing food waste.
As Akbar says: ‘Many people on a tight budget during the cost of living crisis have been attracted by the fact that they can buy the exact quantities they need.
‘Once they visit the shop and go through the novel experience of filling their containers and weighing their goods most people want to come back again. Lots of people who had never heard of zero waste shopping are becoming regulars!’ He beams.
Though many local shoppers are being won over by the shop’s customer experience and sustainable vision, with roughly one hundred zero waste stores across the whole country, there’s still a long way to go to spread the concept of zero waste shopping to more customers.
As awareness of the climate crisis and the damaging impact of single waste plastic grows, individuals now have the power to make simple changes to their shopping habits that make a big difference to our planet.
Paving a way to a greener planet and putting the fun back into shopping, showing supermarkets how it’s done, Queen Mary’s Zero Waste shop on Mile End Road brings a tangible way to immediately achieve a more sustainable lifestyle within walking distance.
You can find Queen Mary’s Zero Waste shop at 329 Mile End Rd, Bethnal Green, London E1 4NT.
If you enjoyed this piece, read our interview with the green crusader ridding Mile End Park of litter.
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