The bulk aisle of the grocery store is my paradise. I love its rows of dry goods and snacks free of complicated plastic packaging. It lets me buy only what I need or the amount a recipe calls for — a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
While there are certainly stores that lean in on the zero-waste objective, to which customers bring their own reusable food containers, my New York City neighborhood supermarket gives out flimsy plastic bags for collecting bulk goodies. These bags can’t be recycled in most curbside recycling programs, and unless you bring them to the proper recycling facilities, they end up as landfill trash.
Less than a third of all recyclable plastic containers and packing actually gets recycled, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency. And single-use plastic is nearly unavoidable when you’re food shopping, even if you try to bypass the grocery store altogether. Meal delivery kits that aim to reduce excessive ingredients often leave the user with lots of packaging waste. There seems to be no way to win.
That’s where The Wally Shop, a self-proclaimed zero-waste grocery delivery service, comes in. Launched in New York in October, the Brooklyn-based company uses bike couriers to deliver dry goods and local produce packed in organic cotton mesh bags and sealable glass jars.
The Wally Shop charges a $1 fee for each piece of reusable packaging. You exchange these items during your next delivery and Wally deducts the deposit from your receipt. The bike courier takes the used items back to the company’s warehouse to be cleaned before sending them out with another delivery.
I started using The Wally Shop to assuage my guilt over the amount of grocery packaging I toss on a regular basis. It actually helped! When you consider what you buy at the grocery store — especially the staples that you tend to cook with every week — it makes a lot of sense to reuse the packages instead of throwing them out each time. And, after the deposit refund, Wally was only a few dollars more than my usual trip to the market.
My first delivery included a baguette, two apples, some broccoli, loose leaf tea, a mason jar of trail mix and a bigger glass container of organic pearled barley. The produce and bread came in, as promised, cloth bags, and the whole order was delivered in a cloth tote.
The order came to just over $30; $6 of that came from the packaging and the total is without tip. (Tipping is optional with the service.) The receipt came by email and the whole process worked seamlessly. The food was fresh and tasty.
I ended up buying a reusable loose leaf tea strainer at a home goods store because I didn’t own one, which led me to notice, again, another one of my shopping habits that results in needless waste. According to Resource Magazine, most tea bags contain trace amounts of — you guessed it — plastic, that aren’t fully compostable or biodegradable. Certain brands do make biodegradable bags, but the best bet, as The Wally Shop seemed to already know, is to go bagless.
To compare Wally’s prices with the real world, I went to my local supermarket and purchased the same items. I also wanted to see how much packaging I’d accumulate with this bare-bones shopping list.
Everything I bought came in plastic. The hardest to replicate was the tea. I scoured the store for tea that used the least amount of packaging possible, and the green tin pictured was the best I could do (though you can’t see it, the lid is sealed with a plastic film). While I could have probably done without the plastic bags for the produce, I wanted to emulate the buying habits of the common consumer. I also hauled all of this home in two plastic bags.
My in-store shopping experience was slightly cheaper, totaling $22.15. The Wally Shop purchase comes out to be just over $3 more costly, when you consider the reusable bag deposit ― and that’s including delivery fees.
In this tale of two baguettes, The Wally Shop won for me. Its system seems to offer a solve for much of the waste associated with groceries, whether it’s the actual product packaging or the shipping materials used for online delivery.
The Wally Shop does have its limitations, however. It currently serves only certain Brooklyn zip codes, so people who live literally anywhere else in the world (or in Queens) are out of luck. Plus, the product selections are nowhere near as extensive as the brick-and-mortar grocery, though you might look at this as a positive, considering most of The Wally Shop’s offerings consist of fresh, unprocessed and healthful ingredients. And if you like to inspect your produce, ensuring it’s up to your cosmetic standards, the company is not for you — of course, this is the case with any delivery service.
Maybe most important, The Wally Shop is definitely not a one-stop-shop for most consumers, as it doesn’t carry any meat or fish.
Since I don’t normally get my groceries delivered, the biggest problem with The Wally Shop is that it eliminates the need to go to the grocery store in the first place, which, for me, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Ultimately, the service would be most convenient if I didn’t live in an urban area surrounded by shops or if my schedule didn’t allow me to leisurely idle around bins of trail mix.
For now, I’ll be sticking with my regular routine. I’ll have to get creative in ways to waste less while food shopping, but I look forward to seeing how The Wally Shop, and companies that follow, work to make it easier for consumers to waste less.
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said The Wally Shop started this year. It started in October. Language has also been amended to more accurately reflect the company’s policy on tipping.