It is an auspicious time for eliminating disposable food items in New York. Plastic straws are on their way out; the city’s foam container ban just went into effect; some Whole Foods containers were recently found to include chemicals linked to cancer; and now the city’s first “package-free” grocery store has opened in Bushwick.
The idea behind Precycle, as it’s called, is to eliminate unnecessary waste before it happens, says the store’s owner and founder, Katerina Bogatireva. In practice, that means something like a super-sized version of a typical store’s bulk aisle, filled with produce, legumes, pasta, flour, and spices. “I find all the colors on shelf packaging very distracting to me,” says Bogatireva, who grew up in Riga, Latvia under Soviet rule and was formerly a jewelry designer. “They all have different looks, weights, and prices — how do you know what’s good?”
At Precycle, customers are instead asked to bring their own vessels, and they pay only for the amounts they take. “It’s a psychological thing,” Bogatireva explains. “You value food more when you see it in this way.” This is, of course, not a new idea, but whereas these bulk-friendly grocery destinations were once seen as destinations for hippies, today they appeal to an entirely new, younger demographic (many of whom just so happen to live off the L train).
If it sounds slightly more arduous than a typical shopping experience — lugging containers to a store and thinking ahead of time about what, exactly, you’ll need — that’s because it is. Bogatireva hopes that by asking her customers to be more mindful about the food that they buy, she can create a shopping environment that is worlds more efficient than that of a typical grocery store. “After our first week I showed a friend what trash we had, and it was less than five pounds,” she boasts. “And I know we can do even better.” She explains that the food has to be delivered to the store somehow, so she’s working with vendors to ensure they minimize their own packaging, as well.
The upside for shoppers is that this approach also tends to translate to lower prices. (According to one recent report, buying prepackaged oats means paying a 219 percent premium over buying oats in bulk.) In practice, the experience of shopping at a store so invested in minimalism can feel a bit like the 1984 version of buying groceries (what can we say? We miss seeing the friendly faces of Pirate’s Booty and Count Chocula), but anyone who’s shopped at the Park Slope Food Coop probably won’t feel too much culture shock.
Even still, it seems fair to say that the New Yorkers who flock to Whole Foods and Fairway to load their carts with weeks’ (or even months’) worth of groceries won’t be regulars at Precycle, but even in the store’s earliest days, it feels like a truly positive step forward, and another reminder that it’s not too difficult to be a little more aware of our own impact on the environment. “Maybe you start with banning the straw and then the cup,” Bogatireva says. “I get that progress has to be slower — it’s not easy to convince everyone all at once.”