“My vision and my hope is to break the mold of what a sustainable business has to be like.”
It is estimated that half of all plastic packaging is only used once, says the Recycling Consortium, and up to 91% of plastic is not recycled, according to a 2017 report published in Science Advances. Our global waste problem inspired Tamara Lim to create The Wally Shop, a 100% packaging-free grocery concept coming soon to New York.
The online shop will sell locally sourced produce, at a marked-down price made possible as it purchases all items in bulk. The items are then delivered in reusable containers which are picked up by couriers upon your next delivery. This creates a zero-waste shopping experience and completely eliminates single-use plastic from the process. We spoke to founder Tamara Lim to discover the inspiration behind this project.
What prompted you to set up The Wally Shop?
I used to work for Amazon so my journey started there. I never really studied sustainability but while I was at Amazon, I managed the packaging and shipping category. In my role, I would attend trade shows where I noticed one of the biggest topics for this category was sustainability.
Despite this interest, the recycling rates in the United States remained low. As I started to look into it, I thought, “This is such a ridiculous problem. We produce so much trash every day and build plastics that are made to last thousands of years when we only use them once.” When you look into it, you see that it’s not about sustainability or being super-eco, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s absurd.
From there, I looked into the startup field and I didn’t see much. It invigorated me. I took a step back from my job and thought, “Why don’t I do something about it?”
How did you set it up?
I moved to New York, and before I started The Wally Shop, I was working on a different concept in the recycling space. I wanted to make sustainability the norm, so I knew that you had to make it convenient. The first execution I thought of was: how can you incentivize people to recycle more? I spent about a year on that, and it was going well. I was seeing that consumers were really interested in this convenient recycling service that gave you points and showed your impact as you recycled.
However, towards the end of last year, China announced it was closing its borders to overseas recyclables. What that did was severely cripple the US recycling market, because here in the United States, we’re super-reliant on China to take our recyclables. Because of that, we could not find anyone to buy our recyclables so we were forced to go back to the drawing board and rethink. If we cannot fix this problem from the recycling side, how can we still pursue this? What if we prevented the waste from entering the economy in the first place? That’s how The Wally Shop came to be—we looked at an average urban consumer’s waste and where it came from. It’s our food waste—it’s the packaging from the grocery shop.
Why did you decide to target single-use plastic packaging?
I think that’s really the first place to start. The recycling process itself is not very efficient and also, plastic can only be recycled a few times before it loses its quality. But if you look at the impact it has on our environment, it’s really terrible. When recyclables that are difficult to recycle, like plastics, end up in developing countries, they are often burned, adding fumes to our environment. Or they end up in oceans, harming our sea life—and plastics are now being found in our water supply, so it’s really an evil influence on the environment.
Do you think the service model that you’re pioneering is going to be popular with consumers and do you think they will adjust to this new way of shopping?
I think so. We’ve just started putting the word out over the last three weeks, and we’ve been getting a phenomenal response from consumers. Generally, consumers today, especially millennials, really care about our environment and sustainability. Although the really gung-ho who live zero-waste lives are indeed a small percentage, we believe that the majority of people really do care about sustainability, especially if it’s convenient for them.
What do you hope to achieve?
I want to create a business where sustainability is not merely an added cost or something to just check off, but is an advantage that helps us provide an even more convenient service that offers fresh, quality products at competitive prices.
For more on sustainability, read our report The New Sustainability: Regeneration