EMBRACING A PLASTIC-FREE EXISTENCE
Since the invention of plastic at the start of the 20th century, we’ve grown inextricably bound to its volatile charms. In the last century, it’s enabled great advances across all aspects of modern-day life from medical science to tech, but at the same time, plastic’s stranglehold on the environment has increased to a point of catastrophe, altering our ability – the ability of all life – to survive on this planet. But little by little, pioneers for change are starting to point the way to a life without plastic, a daunting prospect at first, but one which is entirely within our reach if enough of us embrace that change. And while these pioneers may cluster around regions like California, Scandinavia, the UK, Singapore and Japan, one such pioneer found a home in Cape Town where he gave birth to Nude Foods in 2017, a revolutionary grocery store that not only combats the use of plastic packaging, but that is also proudly waste free.
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE
For Paul Rubin, founder and owner of Nude Foods in Cape Town, it started with a lifestyle change. After 10 years in the marketing and advertising industry, he had reached a crossroads in 2012. Burnt out and lacking in motivation, he knew that his life needed a complete overhaul. “I altered my diet to become completely plant-based,” he says, “which was pretty well established abroad, but it wasn’t such a big thing in South Africa back then.
After starting a vegan catering company around the time, one aspect of this niche market that he struggled to get his head around was that so many products came in doy packs (plastic bags with a wide base and a narrow, resealable top). “I was accumulating so many of them,” Paul recalls, “I just remember feeling that I was cleaning my body but not the environment.”
In Paul’s mind, one book proved seminal in the global movement towards waste-free living. After running a successful website on the topic, Bea Johnson published the book, Zero Waste Home, in 2016, and was soon dubbed “the high priestess of waste free living” by the likes of The New York Times. “It was a transformative book that brought a whole community of likeminded people together and gave them cohesion,” Paul says. By 2017, with waste free shops opening up across the globe and following the Two Oceans Aquarium’s “Refuse the Bag” campaign, which coincided with community-driven beach clean-ups all around Cape Town, he felt that there was enough of a market for a concept like Nude Foods locally.
A TWOFOLD PHILOSOPHY
Paul realised early on that plastic-free shopping alone would not carry the business, but Nude Foods would have to address a broader sustainable lifestyle. “On the one hand, we addressed the need to live more low impact, conscious consumerism, and plastic-free shopping,” Paul explains, “On the other, we wanted to make healthy food and ingredients available to the general South African population.” The result is an organic evolution of the customer.
“Someone might come to shop plastic free but be exposed to more local products and ingredients.” Nude Foods’ buying philosophy is that local is always favoured over international products, with a few exceptions. “Chickpeas, for instance, aren’t grown anywhere in South Africa, so we get them from India. And Tiger Brands has the monopoly on locally grown oats in South Africa, so we source our oats from Denmark.” Generally, however, all fresh produce is sourced from Cape Town and surrounds, all ingredients are non-GMO, and are mostly organic.
“This concept can only work if enough people support it,” says Paul. “We were very lucky early on because we were the first waste-free shop in South Africa, so we got a lot of publicity. But the challenges in running a business like ours are huge. For one thing, working with unpackaged food means they’ve got a six-month shelf life, tops.
“Although it’s changed quite a bit, so many suppliers don’t understand the concept of a zero-waste store,” Paul says. “We can’t work with anyone who uses plastic in their processes, but so many companies have systems that have been in place for decades. But I’m finding that some suppliers I contacted four years ago are coming back to me when they catch on to what we’re doing.”
As much as Paul would like to avoid the C-word, he says, “You just can’t avoid the impact of Covid. There’s definitely a difference between what we were before and what we were after. We grew very fast before the pandemic, but flatlined after that. A lot of people left the city, but customers were also skittish about touching the same scoop as everyone else. Although we definitely lost some customers over the pandemic, we also gained new customers who didn’t want to go to the commercial supermarkets anymore.
“The average person is very addicted to convenience, though, and don’t even know that avos have seasons,” says Paul, “but I’m finding the younger generations (Generations X and Y) are embracing this way of life a bit more.”
For a company so small and agile, it still took Paul and his team four years to figure out a system that works. For a large chain – with seemingly infinite processes in place – to make the shift to completely plastic-free shopping would take a lot longer. “Without sounding like a hippie, the capitalist side of business needs to change for the concept to become more widespread. The short-term profits when making the switch to a plastic-free model would be lower but would even out in the long term. In the end, we started Nude Foods to shake up the industry, and it is having a ripple effect. With every plastic-free corner that launches in a big box retail chain, it’s definitely happening… perhaps not as quickly as we’d have liked, but it’s happening.”
In short, making the switch to a plastic-free, waste-free lifestyle is a process, and can become really overwhelming really quickly. But as Paul suggests, “No one expects you to make the shift in a day, a month or a year.” Start making small changes to the things you know you can control.
1. Replace your plastic bags with reusable canvas or recycled plastic ones (if you aren’t doing so already), and remember to take your bags with you when you go shopping.
2. Don’t use a straw at a restaurant if it’s made of plastic, and if you’re addicted to your caffeine kick, go for it! Just replace your takeout cup with a reusable one. And while you’re at it, get one with a bit of attitude.
3. When shopping at a commercial supermarket, opt for loose produce and remember to take containers with you so you’re not stuck having to bag your items.
4. When bringing containers to a waste-free shop, use anything from glass jars, bottles and old Tupperware to bags and old ice cream or yoghurt containers.
5. When in doubt, just make sure you reuse wherever possible. The idea is not to create a demand for any new packaging.