How the Bulk Bin Became the Latest French Food Trend
We all know that plastic consumption is driving us further into climate crisis. But what can you do once you’ve sworn off plastic straws and bags? About 8 percent of the world’s oil production is used to make plastic, and over 40 percent of plastic produced globally is made for packaging that is used only once. How can one person have a measurable impact with statistics that grim?
The French might have an idea: it’s called “en vrac” and it’s blowing up all over the country.
In French, “en vrac” translates to “in bulk”—but not the kind of bulk we are obsessed with in America. En vrac stores are not French Costcos with pallets upon pallets of cereal boxes. En vrac shops are small, personal stores that carry everything from dried goods to household liquids to fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy. The key principle being that none of what is sold in-store comes in any kind of packaging whatsoever. The shopper brings their own containers (whether glass jars or cloth bags, as long as they’re reusable), and everything is weighed and paid for with a price per weight. Like old-fashioned health food stores and food co-ops, but updated for modern gourmands.
In Paris, you can now get pretty much anything en vrac. In the 18th arrondissement, there is Laiterie de Paris, a tiny shop that makes cheese and yogurt in-house. For a deposit of 50 cents, you can buy a jar, pay for the yogurt at 3 or 4 euros, and then any time you want to fill it up, you exchange the glass for a new one. You can also fill up liter containers of raw milk for under 2 euros. With the exception of hard cheeses, almost everything in the shop is made in-house and can be carried out en vrac.
There are en vrac stores that specialize in fresh produce like food co-ops, others that sell a dozen different kinds of flour, others still that have wine on tap. In the 9th arrondissement, there is a tofu en vrac, where tofu enthusiasts can get freshly made tofu in blocks to go. Most en vrac shops have a selection of vinegars at the ready, and one shop in the 18th arrondissement conveniently named En Vrac sells hard liquor and ciders. There, you can take classes to make your own wine, too. At spots like this one, if you don’t have a bottle with you, you can leave a deposit for a bottle then return it when you need to restock. Everywhere else, you only need a glass jar or container, and you’re good to go.
At Negozio Leggero, an en vrac boutique in the 3rd arrondissement, you can buy standard dry goods like pastas, dried beans, and grains, but also an array of spices, biscuits, teas, cleaning supplies, wines, beauty supplies, and oils of all kinds. The setup looks more like an Apple store than a health food store. Everything is kept in neatly organized jars of all shapes and sizes that hang below tables and in organized shelves. If you don’t have a glass jar on you, a staff member will help you package your goods in paper bags, or you can buy containers in the store itself.
“The production of plastic is really something that people are conscious of and want to see stop,” Pauline Vigot, the shop’s owner, told me. “And a lot of things are cheaper when you buy them in bulk. The difference in price can go from thirty to even seventy percent.” But, she says, that also depends on the products and the producers. “We work with small producers. We are not operating in huge volumes. We are selective about what products we sell and who we work with.”
At Negozio Leggero, unlike a handful of the other en vrac shops, staff members fill containers for shoppers. “It helps with waste, and then we can give customers information on the products and ideas for recipes,” Vigot added. The offerings at Negozzio Leggero are similar to those of Day by Day, a franchise that has several stores in Paris, Biocoop, and B-Vrac. L’Epicerie Kilogramme also offers produce and workshops on how to make your own cosmetics, household cleaning products, and more.
En vrac isn’t limited to what you eat; it can help you clean up after dinner, too. Maria Mella owns The Naked Shop, a liquids store where everything from dish soap to laundry detergent to shampoo is dispensed through new-age-looking pumps into chic bottles that customers can buy with a deposit (or bring their own). When she was getting into the zero-waste lifestyle in the mid-2010s, Mella found that going to a bulk shop could be a slow process—the store’s owner would have to pump soaps for her and it felt more complicated than just picking up what she wanted at the store. Her goal with the Naked Shop was to simplify the process. There, the pumps are self-service: you merely tap a loyalty card onto a machine, soaps automatically dispense, and then you pay at the counter. The store opened in December 2018, and she says every month they are breaking their own profit records.
Mella understands why the en vrac concept has taken off in France: it’s not that different from how the French shop in the first place. “It feels a lot like the organic movement that started in the 80s, then got big in the 90s, how we have this awareness about consuming directly from farmers,” she explained. “We’ve been talking about this now for forty years. Despite the arrival of these huge supermarkets, French culture has always been about getting your bread here, your cheese here, having to go to five different places to do your shopping.”
En vrac has gotten so big in France that there is even an association of en vrac store owners called Réseau Vrac. There are over 300 en vrac stores in France alone, and hundreds more members of the organization who are gearing up to open their own. Last year, the association found that one in two people in France shopped in bulk at some point during the year. The en vrac movement has been such a success in France that there is even now a store itself—La Maison de Zéro Dechét (The Zero Waste House)—where you can specifically buy products, like glass jars, cloth bags, and beeswax wraps, to help aid in your en vrac lifestyle. One of their coolest initiatives? A set of reusable dinner party plates, cups, and cutlery that you can rent out, free of charge, and return when your dinner party or event is over.
And while it might be a tougher sell to Americans—having to travel to a handful of smaller shops with glass jars in hand filling up only what you need for that week can be a lot—the movement has made waves in the States, too. Sites like Zero Waste At Home and The Wally Shop are great resources for finding shops and products that come to you package-free. The bulk lifestyle has always been part of the health food store aesthetic—the en vrac store concept is just helping it go mainstream. Mella emphasized that it’s a lot simpler and a lot more old-fashioned than it might seem. “We haven’t invented anything,” she said. “We’re just going back to life before plastic.”