The Glass Pantry: Paving the Way for Sustainable Shopping

Creator of The Glass Pantry

Pictured here, Jenna Meier and her son.
Photo By Melissa Steinseifer

When Jenna Meier decided to open The Glass Pantry, a zero-waste, bulk store in Milwaukee, she hoped to be part of the solution to many roadblocks that a lot of low-waste individuals feel discouraged by. Meier’s store was originally set to open its doors around April 2020 in the central location of Walker’s Point before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. 

“I went vegan nine years ago and since then I’ve kind of been on this sustainability journey, learning more about where our food comes from, learning more about farming practices, organic farming, regenerative farming, and then it kind of lead me down the road of looking into the waste we were producing in our household,” Meier said. “In terms of being aware of the amount of trash I was producing in my home, that was probably about three years ago.”

Meier noticed that people wanted more bulk options and hoped stores would start carrying it. “I wanted the household cleaners and personal care products, shampoo, and all that stuff, and it just wasn’t happening … I was just like; I think it’s supposed to be me,” Meier said.

The way her store will operate is that customers will bring in their own, clean containers (paper bags will also be available) and weigh them. Then they can fill their containers with whatever they need, weigh it again, and pay for the weight of the product. Containers could be anything from glass, to reusable canvas bags, Tupperware, shampoo/conditioner bottles, etc.

A look inside The Glass Pantry and some of its many sustainable products offered.
Photo By Jenna Meier

The goods being sold at The Glass Pantry range anywhere from trail mix, granola, spices, flour, oats, teas, pastas, nuts, to cleaners, soaps, deodorant, toothpaste powder, detergents. Things will vary cost-wise as some goods are more expensive than others to produce and source. Meier said her prices might be comparable to somewhere like Fresh Thyme but she will have to see over time. 

Meier hopes for her store to become a hub for sustainability awareness, classes, and projects. Overall, she hopes that she sees a decline in the amount of trash being produced in her community.

“I just want to help other local businesses grow, help other makers and farmers grow their businesses, and provide an alternative to the trash producing way that we shop right now,” Meier said.

The Waste We Produce

In both 2018 and 2019, globally we hit our “Earth Overshoot Day” on July 29, according to the Global Footprint Network. This means that roughly seven months into our set year, we already surpassed the amount of resources Earth could provide for us, or its bio-capacity. As the rest of the year is carried out, we cause a deficit to Earth’s resource supply, one that will not be able to keep up with our rate of consumption forever. Not only are we using up these resources, but we are being wasteful with them.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017 the United States produced 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste, or roughly 4.51 pounds per person each day. This number is gradually climbing each year and unfortunately, over half of that waste ended up in landfills, as opposed to being recycled, composted, or recovered energy through combustion.

Going Low-Waste

A big component of a low-waste lifestyle is the “Five R’s”: Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. These concepts become a basis for the belief system you create on your low-waste journey.

Lottie Brooks, author of the blog “Adulting Isn’t Easy,” said one of the simplest ways to start incorporating low-waste methods is to pinpoint something in your life that is causing a lot of waste and see if there’s a reusable version of that item, but only if that’s applicable to your life. 

Doing a trash audit or a transportation audit is a good first step in becoming more aware of your waste contribution and the ways you can work to improve it. However, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed, try to change one thing at a time.

“Take it slowly, and take it realistically. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a sustainable lifestyle,” Brooks said.

“Low-waste” serves as a commonality among members of that community, however, differences are to be expected. Some people are vegetarian, some are vegan, some aren’t either of those things. Some sustainable swaps might not be as sustainable for others. 

“Everybody’s journey is a little different, but I think that’s great because if everyone prioritizes a little differently, we get more done,” Meier said.

Meier gave the example of glass often being seen as the sustainable option, but that isn’t always the case. It’s a product-by-product basis.

In the low-waste lifestyle, a big change that you have to adjust to is shopping. Often, shopping with your beliefs in mind can be a bit of a challenge in this lifestyle, as you have to do a lot of the searching and sourcing yourself. 

Many companies have not focused efforts in sustainability, so that might mean shopping at a number of different stores to find everything you need, or for some, it might be settling for a less sustainable option because there just isn’t another option available for you in your circumstances. 

A lot of individuals of the low-waste community shop in bulk sections, as that typically is more sustainable than by each item individually because of less packaging. It is also more sustainable to shop as locally as possible to avoid huge transportation costs.

Low-Waste and a Circular Economy

In the U.S., we utilize a linear production system when it comes to the life-cycle of goods. The system begins with resource extraction, followed by “dirty” manufacturing, consumption by the community, and ends with resource destruction.

In a zero-waste production system, similar to a circular economy, the life-cycle of goods looks a little different. It begins with less resource extraction, followed by clean production, it’s passed on to the community who is responsible for reusing/repairing goods and little to no resource disposal, and then a resource recovery infrastructure cycles all goods back through the circle and their life cycle continues. 

The difference between zero-waste and a circular economy is that zero-waste is typically used to communicate waste diversion goals to the public, whereas a circular economy is a mechanism for businesses and manufactures to utilize. A circular economy isn’t just focused on one company’s efforts toward one product, but rather the interconnectedness of all companies coming together to rethink and redesign our operating system.

As the public and members of society, some of the zero-waste/low-waste choices we make can be a push for corporations to move in the direction of the circular economy. One of these choices is living a low-waste lifestyle.

The Glass Pantry as a Solution

While The Glass Pantry makes amazing strides in the low-waste community, it is still a bit of a niche area of interest. As far as appealing to individuals who aren’t as environmentally conscious, Meier hopes to provide a unique and novel shopping experience for them. Some lower prices might serve as an incentive to want to go, and if they’re interested in the realm of supporting local business, and local farmers, she has a large culmination of those.

Waste will still be produced on the back end of things for The Glass Pantry, but Meier is partnering with many local businesses and farmers to avoid as much waste as she can. She’s made specific arrangements for sustainable packaging or no packaging, refill stations and refillable packaging, between makers on a product-by-product basis. Solutions can be formed when both parties are flexible and willing. 

Some of The Glass Pantry’s refillable options.
Photo By Jenna Meier

If there is no way to source or deliver a product sustainably, then Meier chooses not to sell that product. She mentioned this with the packing of both ketchup and maple syrup. The bulk packaging for these items is less sustainable than buying the product in its individual packaging. She also cuts back on shipping and transportation costs by working out delivery schedules with her suppliers.

Something that still limits the low-waste lifestyle from taking off is convenience. By making stores like Meier’s more accessible and prevalent, the environmental intrigue of this way of living can really begin to take off. 

“If we can make it more convenient to live more sustainably, I think that’s where the solutions are going to lie,” Meier said.

Some larger companies like TerraCycle and Loop have started partnering with companies to make reusable packaging and appeal to that idea of making sustainability just convenient as the unsustainable shopping we’re practicing now. The creativity of sustainable ways to do things needs to carry over into bigger corporations. 

Meier hopes that as businesses like hers prove that low-waste goals can be met between suppliers on a small scale, that big manufactures can begin to adopt some of these sustainable methods as well.

Green Life Trading Company

The impact and future of The Glass Pantry is still something that is unknown. However, another store that’s similar to Meier’s is Green Life Trading Co. in Madison, Wisconsin owned by Sasha Stone. 

Currently the store functions as a low-waste eCommerce store for a variety of products, as well as bulk refills of plastic bottles instead of glass ones. 

“To live more zero waste we don’t need less plastic, we need a circular economy,” Stone said. “Shipping and recycling glass has a larger climate impact than plastic. If we start shipping a bunch of glass instead of plastic we will see a rise in CO2 emissions … this is not the solution.”

Pictured are a number of options to receive your refillable products from Green Life Trading Co. depending on the type of product you purchase. Photo By: Sasha Stone

All shipping from the shop uses 100% up-cycled boxes and packing materials received from vendors. Stone is also in the process of opening up a physical store some time this month, but that has been delayed until after quarantine due to COVID-19 ends. 

One major impact that Green Life Trading Co. has had on the surrounding community since it has been open is knowledge and awareness around the term “zero-waste”.

“When I opened the shop, people didn’t know the term ‘zero waste’,” said Stone. “I would tell people I owned a sustainable housewares store so they could understand. Six months later I can say ‘zero waste’ and about 75% of folks know what I mean. That has been a really cool thing to watch.”

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