food / travel

Muesli In Bulk, Vodka On Tap: This Package-Free Berlin Store Could Change The World

If you want milk or Berlin-made vodka, bring your own bottles. At Original Unpackaged, there's no cardboard or shrink wrap, nothing jarred or canned. Is this the smart consumer of the future?

The earth needs to start counting its beans
The earth needs to start counting its beans
Nataly Bleuel

BERLIN — There's a new store in Berlin. And I'm not talking about the mall on Leipziger Platz that's being opened with such fanfare. There are already 65 malls in Berlin, one as ugly as the next, selling stuff from retailers like H&M, Wormland and Toys R Us that'll land on the junk heap soon enough — along with the 16 million tons of garbage produced from packaging alone every year in Germany.

The new store is notable most of all because it doesn't have any packaging, but you can still buy muesli, spaghetti and washing detergent. And of course fruit and vegetables just as you can in any store selling food and household items. And because it's in the city's Kreuzberg area, the stock is largely organic too. The store is called Original Unverpackt (Original Unpackaged), and unlike Berlin's 66th mall, it is very original indeed.

When you buy, here you bring your own packaging. Just like my grandma, who used to smooth out paper sacks over and over until they were slightly greasy and then used them some more until they tore. If you don't have anything to bring with you, you can buy cloth bags, cans, bottles and jars there. And then the fun begins.

The first time I went, I have to admit I felt anxious about the new experience. More precisely, I felt nervous about unscrewing all those lids, turning the little faucets on and off. Uncomfortable, I stood in the store for a while to wrap my mind around this new reality. I thought again of my grandma and what a wonderful thing it is to put your purchases in a basket instead of coming home, unpacking everything and throwing out a whole garbage bin worth of packaging.

Original Unpackaged is a little like a kid's vision of paradise. On the walls hang batteries of receptacles, so-called bulk bins, that look like gum machines, except they contain things like nuts, noodles, spices, even gummy bears. Turn a faucet and you get milk, wine and made-in-Berlin vodka. Everything is weighed at the counter, and if you've taken too much because you're not accustomed to the system yet — no problem, leave those 17 grams of muesli right there. Apparently, they'll be given to store staff.

Then I thought of markets in other countries where they sell spices and nuts and washing powder out of large sacks sitting on the ground. I also questioned why in a store where items are weighed and packed individually for each customer — in the containers they bring with them or the ones they can buy right there — they don't have staff to serve you. The way people in stores served my grandma back in the day. Now you help yourself the way you do at any self-service discounter.

I think that would be cool. It would of course cost more. That's why I don't drive a car anymore — so I can pay fair prices for the really important things you need to live.

But maybe that's an old-fashioned grandma thought, and Original Unpackaged is going to become huge just the way it is. Apparently there's already a lot of interest in franchises. Anyway, I left the store with a washing-up brush, and near me was a guy buying one zucchini, one eggplant and six eggs. He seemed very satisfied.

More satisfied than those who got caught in the weekend crowding at the Mall of Berlin. Too many cars, apparently. Could it be that there were so many cars because shoppers didn't want any packaging and were stowing all their buys directly in their vehicles?

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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