Even if you’re trying to shop sustainably — buying in bulk, choosing local produce, bringing your own bag to the supermarket — chances are, your weekly grocery order isn’t totally waste-free.
But one startup in Brooklyn wants to make zero-waste grocery shopping a reality. The Wally Shop is an online grocery-delivery service where the packaging, delivery, and bags are all waste-free. Seriously.
Here’s how it works: If you’re in an area where The Wally Shop is active (they currently serve a dozen-ish zip codes in Brooklyn), you can shop on their website for goods from local farmers markets and bulk stores (produce, coffee, tea, grains, etc.). After choosing your goods, you then pick a delivery time between 6-8 p.m. If you order before 2 p.m. you can have your order delivered same day.
Once Wally receives an incoming order, the company’s in-house shoppers will hit up local markets and bulk stores to find the items on your grocery list. Back at the company’s warehouse, those goods are repacked into reusable containers. Think glass mason jars and muslin bags. The entire order gets put in a reusable tote bag and delivered to you via bicycle. Each packaging item costs one dollar; customers can return the containers and get their deposit applied to their next order, or they can keep the packaging.
The Wally Shop launched in October of 2018, but CEO Tamara Lim has been developing the concept for two years — ever since she realized the inefficiencies of America’s recycling infrastructure while working in packaging and shipping department at Amazon. There, she learned how tricky recycling infrastructure is in the U.S., where packaging is difficult to recycle, and recycled packaging is more expensive for companies to buy than virgin. According to the EPA, in 2015 only about half of packaging (boxes, plastic coverings, etc.) was recycled. The remaining ended up in landfills, totaling over 29 million tons (21 percent of the total landfill).
The staggering amount of packaging waste isn’t just because people are lazy. It can be tricky to figure out how to properly recycle various packaging components, especially when it comes to ice packs and tiny containers that keep groceries and meal kits chilled en route to your doorstep. Instead of trying to convert to 100 percent curbside recyclable packaging, like meal kit service Purple Carrot did a few months ago, Lim decided to do away with the problem altogether. “I wanted to make it really convenient for people to be sustainable,” she told me over the phone.
The Wally Shop’s timing could not have been better, as it’s situated squarely at the convergence of three major food trends:
1: Consumers want local, sustainable, organic food with a transparent supply chain, and are willing to pay more for it. With The Wally Store, they’ll have to: As with most farmers market produce, Wally’s prices are higher than your average corner grocery. On top of the actual shopping bill, all orders have a 15 percent service fee tacked on, plus the packaging costs and a $3.99 delivery charge. That can add up, so we’ll have to see if consumers are willing to pay a handsome premium for ethical grocery shopping.
2: Convenience is king. Zero-waste grocery stores do actually exist (though not many), but The Wally Shop will be able to serve a wider range of customers by taking advantage of the growing demand for grocery delivery. And while the Wally Shop can’t compete with the 2-hour delivery windows of Amazon/Whole Foods, their zero-waste angle will likely draw in consumers who are willing to wait longer for a more sustainable shopping experience.
3: In the wake of single-use plastic straw bans and pushback against meal kit/delivery packaging, people are waking up to the widespread problem of non-recyclable plastics and packaging. Even big brands are getting onboard: just last week Pepsi, Nestlé, and Unilever teamed up to ditch plastic and sell their products in reusable containers. Branding themselves as “waste-free” is a smart way for Lim and her team to generate a consumer base of ethical shoppers.
As of now, Wally’s team is a pretty small operation: They have four full-time employees and four to five shoppers. Lim told me The Wally Shop has roughly 500 customers signed up right now, and currently has friends & family funding. Next, Lim told me she plans to expand their waste-free grocery delivery service to Manhattan and, eventually, go beyond NYC into San Francisco, Boston, and L.A.
When speaking to Lim, I couldn’t help but think of Farmdrop, the U.K.-based ethical grocery delivery service that sources goods from local farmers and purveyors. The company also has an option where consumers can choose to have the food unpacked at their house (no packaging left behind). I wrote that Farmdrop is a good option for those who want to support local farmers markets but don’t have time to physically shop there, and I think The Wally Shop could serve the same demographic. Lim also mentioned that the service is a good tool for mobility-challenged consumers who still want to shop sustainably.
While I’m cautious that their high prices and service fees will make it hard to attract a larger consumer base and scale up, The Wally Shop’s sustainable business model could generate enough buzz to carve out a grocery delivery niche that’s actually waste-free — at least in wealthy urban areas.