In an excerpt from a new book ‘BUSINESS UNUSUAL: Enterprises paving the way to Zero Waste,’ Beryl Tranco tells the story of how a leisure trip to London in 2016 introduced Bittu John Kalungal, an MTech Aeronautical Engineering graduate, to the concept of bring-your-own-container shopping.
By Beryl Tranco
He was convinced of the concept, that on his return home in Kolenchely, Kerala, India, he left his job and converted their family’s 40-year-old grocery store into a Zero Waste store. Called 7 to 9 Green Store, the grocery now sells products without plastic packaging.
“It took nearly one and a half years to transition my father’s old grocery store into Zero Waste,” Bittu said. “Setting up the store is quite expensive; all containers are manufactured and imported outside India. However, since it was already an established grocery store, it was easier to get sufficient supply of products.”
The conversion came with another challenge: shifting the customers’ preference for particular brands over unbranded products. “We gave samples. Customers gradually liked and started buying items our store offers. Most of these are fresh, natural, eco-friendly and home-made without any preservatives or artificial colors,” Bittu emphasized.
Inside the 500-square-foot store are rows of containers of biodegradable and chemical-free products such as hand washers, dishwashers, soaps, bamboo toothbrushes, and toothpaste in tablet forms. Another attraction is the organic corner where vegetables are sold loose so that consumers can purchase the quantity they desire at a cheaper price.
“It is the quality of the products that attract people from different parts of Kerala. I have customers from Chengannur, Ernakulam, and Tripunithura who drive all the way just to buy things from my store,” Bittu shared.
Bittu added that maintaining the products is not easy. “Shelf life is shorter than those in plastic packaging. For example, the shelf life of loose wheat powder is three weeks while packed items expire in nine months. So we should sell our products within a week. We convince our consumers by educating them about the consequences of plastic wastes.”
According to Bittu, customers bringing their own containers or bottles get a discount of 2% every time they shop. If they don’t have their own containers, they have the option to invest in organic cotton bags which they can use over and over for their grocery shopping. Glass bottles are also available for deposit. Customers can either keep the glass bottles or return them to the store and receive a full refund of their deposit.
Since its opening, the store has inspired changes in the way people shop, having shown them the impact of plastic-free shopping. Bittu shared that a faculty of a local school approached him, gladly saying that in the three months he has been purchasing in his store, he hasn’t seen any plastic packets in his home.
Bittu also talked about a doctor who came to his store with his own container to refill sugar. “Another guy was in the shop. This guy watched the doctor refill his own containers, then came to me and asked me: ‘Does he always come with his own containers?’ That should be the change coming from everyone. From this incident, the guy realized it’s not bad to bring containers from home and buy by refill. In our society, 20% of the people set the trend and the rest look up at these 20% and try to live like them. If we can change the attitude of the 20%, we can make a huge difference in our society.”
7 to 9 Green Store has attained some fame through social media and news channels. Bittu shared that nearby stores are also now making efforts to avoid plastic packaging. They sell good quality cleaning solutions in loose form that are half the price of branded products. People refill their own bottles at a minimal cost.
“Lots of people are asking for franchises. We are working on that. In two years, nearly 500 people came to the store not to purchase but to express their interest in replicating the enterprise. I am giving all my support to them. Having Zero Waste shops in every place will make a huge difference. Imagine one single store can save 10 lakh (1 million) pieces of plastic in two years!” Bittu stated.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of walk-ins was reduced from 300 to 100 people. Their sales on nuts and dry fruits also dropped but other items were not affected. “We felt it is risky now for different people to touch the scoops in the bin. We changed the dynamics to promote safe shopping. Customers are not allowed to get into the store. They give a list and patiently wait outside while we pack every item they purchase,” Bittu shared.
He added that they also started Zero Waste delivery where they bring their products to the customers’ doorstep.
Today, the bring-your-own-container Bittu introduced to his community has changed his customers’ mindsets and shopping habits. This makes him feel good about his decision to leave his engineering work. “I am getting the satisfaction which my engineering job failed to give me. As I have said, we have prevented the use of 10 lakh pieces of plastic in two years. My town, Kolenchery is a remote town. I think there are nearly 40 grocery stores and five big supermarkets here. Can you imagine the amount of plastic coming out of each store every day?” he said.
He added: “If I just wanted to do business, I could simply sit with my father [in our old grocery store] and not make any risks. But I chose this one. I know I am doing something good for the environment and I am making money too,” he said.
This above extract is part of the book, ‘BUSINESS UNUSUAL: Enterprises paving the way to Zero Waste,’ a collection of feature articles on select enterprises in Asia Pacific that practice and promote zero waste principles. Published by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). Download the book for free here. the publication may be downloaded for free at no-burn.org.
All images courtesy of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives & 7-9 Green Store.