M. Vrac turns hidden into obvious

Shopping at Monsieur Vrac, the new zero waste general goods store next to Best Buy in West Royalty, is a pain in the ass.

That’s kind of the point.

Or at least it was the point driven home to me. 

All the futzing around with grease pencils (to mark product codes on bags and jars). All the scooping, filling, pumping. All the trying-to-figure-out-what-everything-is-from-the-tiny-labels. All the math and mass.

Combined, the point it all drives home is why we have packaging in the first place: it’s simply a lot easier to pick up a plastic container of roasted almonds from a rack, a container that has a price on it, and put it in your shopping cart than it is to find the right size glass jar, place it under the roasted almonds dispenser, unleash the trap door so that the almonds can flow, hope that the almonds don’t overflow all over the place, and hope that you haven’t mistakenly served yourself $25 of roasted almonds (or, in my case, $20.56 of vegan dark chocolate chips).

On my first visit, last night, my purchases ranged from 1 cent worth of coriander to $20.56 worth of the aforementioned chocolate; there are no itemized receipts provided, in keeping with the zero waste philosophy, but you are invited to take a photo of the display of the point of sale system; here’s mine:

Screen shot of the point of sale system showing my purchases: for each item the product code, weight, price and total is shown.

Because of COVID-19, you’re not allowed to bring your own containers, leaving the only option to purchase glass jars (which cost between $1 and $2 each, depending on the size) or to use (free) paper bags (which, led to an embarrassing chocolate chip spill when the bag broke). The jars can be returned to the store for credit on your next order, so it’s not entirely an out-of-pocket cost; post-COVID, when we’ll be able to take our own containers, things will improve (although there will be the need to weigh containers before filling, which is another hill to climb).

Sharon Labchuk, founding leader of the Green Party of PEI, once talked on the radio about how it’s not that the things we consume on Prince Edward Island don’t consume energy and generate waste, it’s just that the energy and the waste, from creation and packaging both, is hidden from us, because it happens offshore; at M. Vrac we’re called to replace some of that energy with our own energy. In doing so, we make the hidden obvious, and I emerged, after 45 minutes of wandering and filling and labeling and (accidentally) spilling, with two shopping bags full of things I am going to either eat or use again, rather than throwing away.

All that said, I’m not sure whether I’ll go back to Monsieur Vrac: I’m completely on board with the philosophy, and seeing how much packaging I didn’t use was enlightening, but I wonder if I have it in me to bus my own tables week after week. I will try. I hope others will try. In the meantime, I have a lifetime supply of vegan 70% chocolate chips.


Susan White's picture
Susan White on December 16, 2020 - 11:49 Permalink

It definitely takes some getting used to, but after a while you get a sense of the quantities you use and how much it'll cost. The downside for me at the place I shop is that people are not trusted to weigh their own containers so you have to wait in a line at the cash to have it done for you. That can take a lot of time.

David's picture
David on December 16, 2020 - 12:07 Permalink

I think once they get their online store is up and running like it is in Quebec, it will make this store will be more appealing. I want someone to package the products I want but to do so in a way that allows me to exchange containers vs. recycle them. This is what we do when we buy eggs, veggies, etc at various farmers markets. I don't really want to be more involved in the product selection process than that.

Michelle's picture
Michelle on December 16, 2020 - 21:29 Permalink

We were shopping this way 30 yrs ago at the Horn of Plenty in Dundas, ON. Regularly brought our containers which were weighed once and had the weight written on the bottom in permanent marker. We were producing almost no waste in those days and I thought we were at the turning point for society. Sigh......

Sus's picture
Sus on December 17, 2020 - 08:35 Permalink

I think these stores would work better if employees filled the orders instead of the customers - you go in with a list and all the bins are behind the counter. Isn’t that how it was done historically?

I do love bulk shops, but I’d worry if they became the default. For folks with food allergies they can be completely unsuitable. I have celiac disease and nothing that comes out of a store like this is safe for me eat.

Clark's picture
Clark on December 18, 2020 - 07:45 Permalink

Unfortunately their prices are much higher for the items we buy a lot of - nuts, seeds and the like.

Ann's picture
Ann on December 18, 2020 - 18:43 Permalink

But where is the stuff from? Might the carbon footprint of a plastic bag be less than food that flies in from all over?