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.

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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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