San Diego’s First Zero Waste Grocery Store
Isabelle DeMillan, Owner / Founder of The Mighty Bin
It’s called the Mighty Bin, and it’s the first store in San Diego to offer all its food products with no wrappers and packaging. Bring your own jars, grab some donated (and sanitized) ones on site, or purchase new jars to fill up. Weigh each item and pay for only as much as you need. The store also focuses on organic, vegan, gluten free, pesticide free, and local options, along with personal care products like compostable dental floss and bamboo toothbrushes.
Owner and founder Isabelle DeMillan strives to offer “as much variety as a conventional grocery store,” but without the ubiquitous cardboard and plastic packaging. But that doesn’t mean she is able to go completely plastic-free: food items still arrive in huge poly-lined bags that she and staff then use to fill the store’s bulk bins. DeMillan is partnering with TerraCycle to recycle the plastic instead of passing it down the line to the consumer or throwing it in the trash.
The EPA reports that containers and packaging made up 28.1% of total waste generation in 2018. Before it gets to the waste stream, packaging uses a vast amount of resources in production, including energy, water, petroleum, wood, fiber, and minerals. Manufacturing each type of packaging produces emissions and pollutants. Columbia Climate School’s State of the Planet reported in 2020, “If plastic production stays on its current trajectory, by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach 1.34 billion tons per year, equivalent to the emissions produced by 300 new 500MW coal-fired power plants.” That’s for something that will most likely be used once and thrown away (or possibly recycled, using yet more energy).
And there’s a purpose behind the “pay only for what you need” concept at the Mighty Bin: reduce food waste. According to the EPA, food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills and the third-largest source of US methane emissions at a share of 14.1% annually. It’s well-documented that methane is a potent contributor to atmospheric warming. If we all throw away less food, we can reduce methane emissions and reduce the waste of the water, energy, and labor it took to produce that food.
DeMillan also looks for suppliers that are making an effort to use sustainable packaging or business practices. Lundberg Family Farms is one such company. Founded in 1937, Lundberg Farms grows rice in the Sacramento River valley. The manufacturing facility is powered by 100% renewable energy, and 30% of packaging is post-consumer content. As they work, they collect, divert, reuse, and recycle 99.7% of what would otherwise enter the waste stream. The farm floods a portion of its fields along the river to provide wetlands habitat for wintering waterfowl.
“It’s a lot of research,” said DeMillan of trying to find companies that are stewards of the land and environment. “I have to avoid greenwashing.”
The Mighty Bin also carries fresh produce from a distributor that partners with local farmers, and bread from a local bakery. The majority of products are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. There’s a free compost drop-off program in-store, too: customers can fill up a bucket with food scraps (including meat, bones, and oils that don’t go in the aerobic compost) and leave it at the Mighty Bin. The Compost Group will pick it up and transport it to the anaerobic digester on campus at Cal State San Marcos. For those who want to support sustainable businesses in San Diego, DeMillan and her staff have compiled a “San Diego Sustainable Directory” on the store’s website.
While the Mighty Bin is San Diego’s first no-waste food store, a few other establishments around town follow the no-packaging format. Bring your own containers to fill with lotion and other body care products at Nada Shop in Encinitas, Sonora Refillery in Oceanside, or Earthwell Refill in Kensington. Refill your cleaning products, shop for reusable cutlery, and find products that can go in the compost instead of the trash when you’re done.
Think about toothbrushes, for example: research by Foreo estimates we throw away 1 billion plastic toothbrushes per year in the US, which amounts to 50 million tons of plastic waste. But before we even use them and throw them away, toothbrushes contribute to our reliance on fossil fuels. Like so many everyday items, plastic toothbrushes are made of petroleum by-products nylon and polypropylene. Nylon manufacturing produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.
Increasing numbers of merchants are getting into the “zero-waste” market, providing more variety for those who make an effort to reduce the amount of packaging they consume. But with just a few choices in San Diego, we could end up burning extra fuel just to get to a zero-waste store. Until it becomes more common to find stores and vendors that offer these options, it’s a difficult balance. Buying fresh produce instead of processed foods, reusing shopping bags, eating all the food you buy, storing leftovers in reusable containers, and composting veggie scraps are all ways to get started.