Old Ottawa East Prepares for its Nu Grocery

By Holly Bickerton

[Editor’s Note: In the August issue of The Mainstreeter, we noted that Old Ottawa East’s quest for an in-community grocery store had finally met with success. NU Grocery announced in July that it would be expanding its operations to include a new store in the Corners on Main development on Main Street, bringing along the “zero waste” concept that has made the initial NU Grocery store in Hintonburg such a success with neighbourhood shoppers. In anticipation of the opening of NU Grocery in OOE, we thought we would let you know of other “zero waste” options currently available in neighbouring communities of Old Ottawa South (OOS) and the Glebe. We are pleased to re-print OOS resident Holly Bickerton’s first-hand account of her family’s “zero-waste experiment” which was published in the September issue of The OSCAR.] 

Lately, it seems that hardly a week goes by without more headlines about the collective harm our species is doing to the planet. Between climate emergencies, species extinctions, and plastic-filled oceans, there is a lot to be alarmed about. The solutions seem urgent, yet huge and complicated. What is a typical family like ours – with two jobs, a couple of kids and far too little time – to do? About a year ago, it was bothering me that our recycling bin was overflowing. We found ourselves needing two bins for our biweekly pickup. We have always been avid recyclers, but this was getting out of hand.

Getting out of hand

Where was all this stuff coming from? Packaging had changed, and we had unwittingly adapted. There had to be a better and less-resource intensive way to feed a family. So our family embarked on an experiment to reduce not only our garbage but also the recycling – just to see what we could do.

In the spirit of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” it seemed we needed to get back to basics and focus on the “reduce.” The good news is that many businesses in Old Ottawa South and the Glebe have welcomed a variety of efforts to reduce the waste that we bring into the house. This lesson was somewhat unexpected and seemed worth sharing.

Standing in the checkout with my jars and cloth bags, people sometimes ask me if I’m “into zero waste.” (The phrase is based on the movement started by the excellent book, Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, available from OPL). My reply is, I’m trying. You will not get a lecture from me: I can tell you that we are not that close to zero, nor will we even approach it until there are a lot more options from mainstream corporations. You may be relieved to know that we don’t brush our teeth with baking soda or make our own deodorant.

A range of zero waste products and reusable packaging await at OEE’s NU Grocery. Photo by Lorne Abugov

“Zero waste” seems to me a bit like those size 6 jeans in my closet – aspirational, but maybe not so practical. It has never been my aim to try and fit our household’s annual garbage into a thimble. But what I can tell you is that with incremental effort and relatively painless changes, it has been fairly easy to reduce our regular weekly household garbage and recycling by at least half. I am quite proud of that. What if more of us could get to 25% less waste and recycling? Or 50%, or even 60%? The resources saved, including the fossil fuels to truck it all to recycling and landfill, would be significant! And this brings me to our tale of neighbourhood discovery. The Bulk Barn at Billings Bridge is a great place to start.

We’d often bought spices and snacks here, but as you may have heard, the Bulk Barn started a Reusable Container program over a year ago. This was when I started to take a second look at their grocery items, including pasta, cereals, coffee, tea, and baking items. We bring our clean containers (a mix of Mason jars and Rubbermaids), have them weighed, fill them up and pay. Checkout goes faster if you bring a washable marker to write the code on each lid – a great job for kids. If you have a dozen containers like me, the customer in the line behind you will be grateful for you having marked the lids. Since the program started, I’ve noticed a significant increase in customers wheeling their container-filled carts around. I’ve also had many spontaneous and heartening conversations with both like-minded and curious shoppers, and I almost always leave feeling happy. There have been some other unexpected fringe benefits.

Unexpected fringe benefits

Gone are the half-full packages lurking at the back of the kitchen cupboards, leading to reduced food waste and tidier cupboards. An endless selection of snacks for the school lunchboxes keeps the kids on board. Our local treasure, Cedars on Bank Street has also been supportive. Their friendly staff have filled my jars with olives and dips. Bring your own reusable lightweight bags for loose produce. There’s a bulk section at Cedars too, featuring many staples. Recently, I’ve washed and saved our shawarma containers, ready for a refill.

Just over the Bank Street bridge, the Glebe Meat Market will fill your clean containers with any products behind the counter. If you forget them, at least your order comes in a recyclable plastic bag rather than in a Styrofoam tray. McKeen’s Metro in the Glebe will also fill clean containers at its deli counter – featuring prepared salads and a wide range of deli meats. Near the front cash, there is a large bin where you can drop off clean plastic bags for recycling, including cereal and milk bags. Given that the City of Ottawa does not accept plastic bags in the blue box, this is one way to ensure that unavoidable plastic bags get recycled.

Further south, Farm Boy in the Blue Heron Mall on Bank Street has bakery, deli, meat and fish counters where the staff have been willing to weigh and fill containers. My trips there are usually motivated by the fact that we have run out of frozen blueberries, which can be bought in a large 2 kilogram cardboard box.

Reuse the planet’s resources

If you widen your reduced-waste experiment to include clothing and other household goods, Old Ottawa South shines. Of course, Boomerang Kids and the Clothes Secret will outfit most of the family for a fraction of retail, while you reuse the planet’s resources rather than buying new. The Sunnyside Library and Black Squirrel Books will provide the reading material for a lifetime. And although I’m not an antique buyer, the concept is the same, and Old Ottawa South has abundant selection.

When shopping becomes too much, there is always coffee. All the coffee shops in OOS have happily filled my reusable coffee container, even thanking me for bringing it! Re-usable water bottles can be refilled at the Sunnyside Library. Feeling virtuous? Grab a gelato cone at Stella Luna. I’m sure there are more local businesses worth mentioning in a zero-waste quest, including the vendors at the Lansdowne Farmer’s Market (and the Main Street Farmer’s Market). These just happen to be my regular stops.

A surprising result of our zero waste experiment is that we now do more shopping closer to home. This is in large part because smaller, local independent, client-focused retailers have been so supportive of our efforts. Our food quality has improved while our spending is hardly different – in part, because less food gets wasted. We’ve also been surprised that just a bit of preparation and a few changes in shopping habits have made a huge difference on garbage night.

Finally – and not to be dismissed in these days of bleak headlines – something as mundane as grocery shopping now helps us feel like we are part of an important solution. It’s visual and inspiring for kids who have seen that their own efforts really count. If you are looking for a way to engage your family in a similar experiment, the films A Plastic Ocean or Blue Planet II on Netflix are great discussion starters. Beware though: they are so heartbreaking that you may never see plastic packaging in the same way again. And then we can meet each other in the neighbourhood, quietly filling our containers, and smile.

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