Prague opens first package-free shop

Photo: archive of Bezobalu

Last week, the governments of EU countries, including the Czech Republic, unanimously approved a new law to cut down the number of plastic bags by 80 percent within the next ten years, with the aim to curb litter on land and in seas. A small non-profit organisation in Prague, called Bezobalu or Unpackaged, is already doing its share in the fight against excessive use of plastic. The group has recently opened a shop in the centre of Prague, where you can only buy unpackaged goods and take them home in your own containers.

Photo: archive of Bezobalu
The first shop selling goods without packaging is hidden in a closed courtyard on the bustling Bělehradská street in Prague’s Vinohrady district. If you don’t know the address, you are most likely to pass it by. But on a late Friday afternoon, a number of customers find their way into the hidden store.

The shop is a single room fitted with shelves from the floor up to the ceiling, holding jars full of chickpeas, lentils, oat flakes, dried fruit and nuts… anything that can be easily weighed and poured into a container.

The man behind the counter, who carefully weighs the goods on the scales, is Onřej Tesař, one of the founders of Bezobalu. He says their aim to attract as many domestic suppliers as possible:

“It is not that easy to find Czech suppliers, because they are usually small, but we are definitely searching for them. When we find out about some interesting producer, we check the quality of his products and if it is good, we include them in our selection. For example just now we have some great walnuts from a small producer from Milešovka.”

Customers are invited to bring their own containers, but in case they forget, they can buy a paper bag, or, preferably, a special textile bag manufactured for this purpose. Lucie Valérová is responsible for their production:

“At the moment these bags are made by our friends, mothers who are at home with kids, aunties, grannies, but we plan to cooperate with a non-profit organization called Český západ or Czech West, based in west Bohemia, which is helping unemployed mothers to find work. And sewing is one of their main activities. So when we have a larger commission, we would like to try it.”

Among the customers finding their way into the shop on a Friday evening are middle aged women rushing home from work, a family with a baby as well as a few young couples. I ask one of them how they found out about the shop:

Photo: archive of Bezobalu
“It is our first visit. I found out on Facebook. I like the idea very much and I like the people who did it, I could see exactly how they did it. It is full of enthusiasm and energy and it follows the trends that I find interesting.”

So what did you buy today?

“We bought some couscous, dried fruit, pumpkin seeds for a salad. It is very healthy. We like it a lot.”

Will you come again? And will you bring your own container next time?

“As soon as possible. I wasn’t sure how it works here. Next time we know where to come and what to do.”

Before I paid a visit to the Bezobalu shop, I spoke to one of its founders, Petr Hanzel. He says the main source of inspiration for their Prague store was a similar shop in London, called Unpackaged, as well as a chain of shops in Italy:

“When we took a closer look at the Italian market, we discovered that the main reason of their success was that at the beginning there was a non-profit organization which carried out a complex survey of the Italian market, including customer behaviour, supplier reaction and all sorts of obstacles which prevented these kinds of shops developing. So they came up with a set of solutions on how to implement this kind of sustainable chain on the market.”

How does it work in the Czech Republic?

“We decided to follow the Italian example and to first carry out a complex survey to see how the supply chain in the Czech Republic works and whether it is possible to negotiate with the suppliers to be more sustainable and more aware of ecological issues and to deliver in reusable packaging right from the source.”

“We also want to have a look at customer behaviour because we think it is worth the effort to be less lazy and to bring our own container at least once a week or once a month and not to create needless waste.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
Why did you open the shop in the district of Vinohrady? Was that a coincidence or did you want to target specific customers living in this particular district?

“We carried out a small research in Prague to choose the best place and we realized that in this particular quarter has an interesting constellation of shops with food aimed at people who think about food in a broader context.”

Can this kind of a shop be sustainable, can it actually make a profit?

“So far we are a non-profit organization but we know it will be really hard to run this commercially. That’s one of the reasons why we are first running this research to find out if it can be built on commercial base.”

Do you have some data that would tell us what proportion of household waste consists of packaging?

“These researches are usually done by waste management companies, so the question is if they are reliable. According to the last research, a Czech family of three people produces on average one tonne of packaging waste every year. It’s quite an incredible number.

Would you say that Czechs are environmentally conscious?

“I think we are not that bad in this respect. We still use the system of returnable beer bottles, for example, which is not so common in the rest of the world.

“But when we speak about the awareness of the consequences of using plastic bags people still don’t realize here that everything has its cost. So in this aspect I think Czechs still can learn a lot. But we don’t want to say you are bead we want to motivate them positively.

What are your plans for the future?

“We have lots of plans but not enough people and time but we want to focus on the storing and logistics research and to come with a specific solution for people who would like to start this kind of sustainable shop here in the Czech Republic.

Photo: archive of Bezobalu
“We would also like to try a shipment by cargo-bikes, that’s also something not used much in Prague. I think it’s a pity and I think it should be tested and implemented at least is some districts to reduce waste.

“But as you said, this would be the next step. Now we have to focus on our small shop and test the selling and storing and all the things connected to it.”