Walking into the Portico Kitchen’s Zero Waste pop-up shop on West Norwood high street, one is greeted by the sweat aromas of dried fruit and a plethora of complex herbs and spices which line the shelves. All in their individually designated jars, customers are encouraged to bring their own battered containers for refills, from nuts and grains to cleaners and cosmetics. Such an enterprise is of growing popularity across the country, as many consumers begin to alter their spending habits to reduce plastic waste and cut their overall contribution to pollution with a wider breadth.


The owner of the shop described to me her personal motivations for transforming the previously redundant space earlier this year. Katie Pitts’ main focuses are, of course, cutting down plastic waste, and more broadly finding alternative eco-products which she could use herself. ‘I’d seen a couple of zero-waste shops previously, and after I had my son, I became more concerned about the environment and climate change, so I decided starting an eco-shop was a good route for me.’ She also tells me that it is about spreading environmentalist notions to a wider community, helping customers to ‘live a less wasteful lifestyle in terms of packaging and the amount of food they consume – or waste.’


This is one of the more unique, consistent aspects of zero-waste shops - customers shop by the gram, only buying the exact quantity of supplies that they need at the time: ‘they can buy as much, or as little, as they need,’ she tells me.


The quality of food is also at a brilliant standard for its competitive prices. All of it is fairly sourced and as often as possible, Katie attempts to stock organic food. She tells me that this is fundamentally out of concern about agricultural practices. According to her, ‘Not all zero-waste shops do,’ but she tells me that ‘in order to limit the harm of pesticides and other harmful chemicals from the growing of food, we opt for organic products.’


However, such well sourced and thoughtful food comes at a price. There is, unsurprisingly, a limited demographic of people who tend to buy from this shop in particular, an issue that the industry is currently struggling with. This is likely because of cheaper supermarket prices which the Portico Kitchen must compete with in order to gain a diligent consumer base, forcing the Katie’s typical consumer into the higher income brackets. She admits that most customers are ‘between the ages of 25 and 40’ and with a ‘medium to high income’, although she assures me that they do receive many customers outside that group. Speculating on what the main reasons for this could be, she elaborates that, ‘zero-waste shops aren’t particularly cheap because the food is ethical and costs more to produce.’ Despite this, she is confident that ‘as they become more popular, they will become more accessible’ to those who might be unwilling to shop at a marginally higher price.


With regard to the contrast between zero-waste shops and the supermarkets, there are an abundance of opinions as to whether or not the latter breed could possibly do more to correct their often-wasteful practices. Even though the packaging used could be reduced, a situation where there is little to no plastic waste is widely accepted as an implausibility. This is primarily due to how supermarkets source products from over-seas, and because of the volume of produce shipped. Katie explains that ‘Supermarkets ship in large, bulk amounts; they could cut down on packaging in shipping from other countries – often food is wrapped in a lot of cling film, for example.’ Despite this, she concedes that the basis of packaging most food is because of legal obligations that retails have for food hygiene. ‘There is a lot more that supermarkets could do, yes, but the food safety aspect of it is that if you have a lot of customers and workers walking around and touching everything, that is where an issue could arise. That’s where smaller zero-waste shops have the problem more cornered, because we have more control over who touches the food and when.’ Perhaps this demonstrates how smaller, local shops like the Portico Kitchen could soon be a prevalent solution to food health concerns, something much harder to manage in a large-scale warehouse.


This touches on the shops’ attribute of being community based and run, and firmly knit into the fabric of many town-centres. Katie outlines that there are many positive inter-personal relationships which have arisen as a consequence of her endeavours. There are many regular customers, people with whom she has the opportunity to talk as they are often small in number and have to ask her specifically for the produce. ‘We definitely have good relationships with customers,’ she states, explaining further how she ‘often talks to some regular customers personally on social media.’ Katie’s own motivations for running the business also become evident to me, as she explains, ‘It is a good way to meet people with similar interests, to spread awareness about other organisations such as Extinction Rebellion,’ -  a key group leading the development of planet-conscious thought across the country. ‘It’s a lovely way to know that there are other people in London who care about the environment and about their impact on the world around them.’


Theo Horch, Wilson’s Grammar School.