Nestled just outside Barcelona’s oldest quarter is a new kind of supermarket: Yes Future. In this waste-free zone, you buy in bulk and bring your own refillable containers. It’s one of a new generation of sustainable alternatives to make shopping more planet-friendly.
Visit a supermarket in Spain and vividly packaged brands jostle for visual dominance on groaning shelves. At Yes Future in Barcelona the scene is completely different. Here, gleaming glass hoppers of pulses, nuts, pasta and spices lead through a stark, futuristic space to a white-tiled wall with taps labelled with Catalan words for various cleaning products, from fabric conditioner to laundry soap.
This is no superficial design choice – it’s minimalism with a purpose. The zero-waste enterprise was set up in response to Spain’s woeful track record with recycling and waste. Plastic-free supermarkets, which encourage customers to bring in their own reusable containers, are a particularly bold concept here in Spain, where nearly 40% of plastic waste ends up thrown into landfill (compare that to, say, Germany, where the figure is 0.6%).
“Our customers remember their parents buying loose ingredients in paper bags”
But then, not so long ago, all stores were plastic-free. “We haven’t invented anything, we just reimagined the old ways of doing things,” says Olga Rodríguez, co-founder of Yes Future. “Most of our customers remember their parents or grandparents buying loose ingredients in paper bags, or returning glass bottles to the milkman.”
From za’atar to saffron
Spain still has a strong tradition of ‘a granel’ (‘in bulk’) shops, where customers can buy as much or as little as they like from huge sacks of grain, dried fruit, nuts, pasta and rice. In keeping with the times, many of these now stock more exotic ingredients, and you might find ras el hanout, star anise or za’atar alongside the more conventional Spanish ingredients, such as paprika and saffron.
Where this new generation of bulk stores differs, however, is in the approach to packaging. In conventional a granel shops, produce is scooped into plastic bags, while at Yes Future, customers bring in their own boxes or jars, which are weighed and ticketed at the entrance. They can also bring glass or reusable plastic bottles to fill with wine, kombucha, shampoo or cleaning products.
Easy does it
Olga and her business partner Alejandro Martínez, who met while working in the fashion industry, came up with the idea when they realised that their organic diet might mean less pollution from food being produced, but was still detrimental to the planet. “Eventually we said, instead of throwing away things like washing detergent bottles, why can’t we just refill them?” says Olga. “We realised we needed to create a place where it was made easy for the consumer to reduce the amount of waste he or she would normally create while buying groceries.”
“Instead of throwing things like bottles away, why can’t we just refill them?”
For the store’s name, the pair took the “No future” slogan seen on countless placards at environmental protests, and turned it on its head. “There was a lot of information about climate change that was very negative, focusing on how everything is being destroyed,” says Olga. “We wanted to give a more positive perspective.”
They found a spot in the neighbourhood of Sant Antoni, just outside Barcelona’s Old City. “It’s an up-and-coming area with lots of young people and families who want to shop sustainably,” says local resident Emma Trepat. She started shopping at Yes Future not long after it opened in September 2017. “Once I started going in and speaking to the owner I realised just how much unnecessary packaging we use. It’s so easy to keep containers, wash and reuse them,” she says. She uses just two bottles of detergent, which she rotates, and also comes here for floor cleaner, shower gel, shampoo and bars of soap.
Not far away is La Gota, another store offering refills. Set up by Dolores Martos Carvajal nine years ago, it was the first of Barcelona’s shops to embrace a sustainable model. ‘Gota’ means ‘drop’ and refers to the vats of liquid detergents lining the walls. Locals bring their own containers and pour out what they need.
She sees helping customers to reduce the amount of waste in their lives as part of her job. “Plastic lasts for years,” says Dolores. “I still have the same bottles for detergent, conditioner and washing-up liquid that I had when I started.” While she has seen a change in attitudes, she believes that there is still a long way to go. “Barcelona is not yet an environmentally-minded city.”
Change is happening – slowly. In line with EU guidelines, single-use plastics such as straws, cups and cutlery are to be banned this year as part of a commitment to make Spain carbon-neutral by 2050. This is good news, but campaigners point to what they see as even more pressing issues, such as the country’s low rate of landfill tax, and the need to discourage businesses from creating waste with a more punitive approach.
“It’s about raising awareness of how we consume”
And not everyone adheres to the rules designed to reduce plastic use. While it is illegal to hand out plastic bags for free, this rule is generally only observed in bigger supermarkets. Ultimately it comes down to raising awareness and the pressure generated by the public, something that has achieved real progress in other countries.
An encouraging sign is the number of smaller independent ‘bulk stores’, such as Yes Future and La Gota, which have rocketed in popularity over the last decade. The EU estimates that by 2030, turnover from packaging-free shops in Europe should be around €1.2 billion.
Major supermarket groups across Europe are also starting to respond. French chain Carrefour and the UK’s Tesco have enlisted the help of Loop, a US scheme that offers customers refills on favourite brands, while Dutch chain Ekoplaza was the first to launch a totally plastic-free aisle.
A tough sell?
But what about plastic use beyond the supermarket? It’s something that British entrepreneur Aimee Van Vliet is trying to tackle in Barcelona. Her new venture, Reusabol, sets out to replace disposable takeaway containers with reusable bowls. Users of the system pay a small, refundable deposit to receive their food to go from any of the restaurants in a growing network, and can return it to any of the others.
“Recycling rates, litter, and so on suggest this isn’t a country that prioritises collective wellbeing,” Aimee says. “Starting a business that requires the consumer to make an extra effort or pay a little extra to keep the planet in balance is a tough sell here.” Even so, she has managed to get a grant from the city council to incorporate more reusable containers into food delivery.
The success of businesses like Yes Future suggests people are opening up to this new way of thinking about waste. The store has now opened a branch in Poblenou, to the north of Barcelona, as Olga and Alejandro’s philosophy of gentle persuasion continues to win over consumers.
Olga says: “It’s also about raising awareness, a consciousness of certain aspects of how we consume. By making it accessible, we believe that people can change their habits. This can be a gradual process; there is no need to make a crazy leap, just wait until that plastic item is broken and then replace with something more eco-friendly. Change things step by step. If we start changing things in tiny ways we can make a huge impact.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- See if there’s a waste-free supermarket near you. If not, bring your own reusable shopping bag with you when you do your groceries.
- Write a letter to supermarket chains, asking them what they are doing to minimise plastic packaging.
- Shop at a local market, where more fresh produce is available without packaging.