I’ve been mostly operating under a “Never Go to Brooklyn (Except in Case of Emergencies)” kind of mindset since I arrived in the city several years ago. I’ve found Brooklyn to be overly full of no-income-yet-somehow-rich MFA grads rocking wardrobes that are by turns normcore, DGAF, tongue-in-cheek, and full-on man-repeller. When I think of the pretension, the too-short jeans, the salon haircuts made to look like they were cut over a kitchen sink for no reason whatsoever, I want to walk outside my door and drown myself in the Hudson. Furthermore, I have no interest in fueling the manifest destiny culture of Brooklyn real estate development, and I don’t have any business exploring the disappearing reaches of Old Brooklyn. So it’s really a thing when I tell you that I braved the wilds of Brooklyn to go shopping at New York’s only waste-free grocery store: Precycle.
Now if you’re still with me, you deserve to know that Precycle is a cool drink of water. It is aesthetically beautiful in a minimalist (must I say, Brooklyn??) sort of way. It is full of natural light, well-organized, and doesn’t even smell like a health food store (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The basic premise of Precycle is simple: Buy food, not waste. Food at Precycle does not come in packages, and the store does not offer disposable bags or food storage containers, so you need to either bring your own or buy one of the glass or cloth containers they sell there. I decided on which food containers to bring after doing a little research about the store and making a grocery list. I brought enough bottles, jars, and bags to buy what I wanted, plus a little extra to give myself the leeway for an impulse buy.
Here’s what I brought to shop into:
- Perrier bottles, 2
- Heinz white vinegar bottle
- Tostitos salsa jar
- Whole Foods brand sauerkraut jar
- Maple syrup bottle
- Flip and Tumble produce bags (read about them here), 2
- Handmade produce bag
- Reusable shopping totes, 2
Turns out that I didn’t need the maple syrup bottle (Precycle doesn’t currently offer maple syrup), the salsa jar (I brought it for peanut butter, also not currently on offer), or the produce bags. Glad I brought them, though, because I ended up using them back in Manhattan.
Despite coming prepared, I did end up buying one container from Precycle: a glass spice jar with a metal lid. I didn’t plan on buying a container, of course, but I’d forgotten to put cinnamon on my shopping list and didn’t have an extra container for it. I could have used the spare salsa jar, but there was some moisture in the bottom of it and, honestly, I was hoping to swing by the Whole Foods on the way home to get some bulk peanut butter.
You might think that shopping at Precycle would be a chaotic experience with everyone clanging around the store with their own bottles and bags, but the setup is pretty slick. Shoppers are invited to know their tare (that’s the weight of an empty container, which will be deducted from per pound purchases) by measuring vessels on a scale in the back of the store, or up front at the register. Experienced zero waste shoppers may mark their tare on their containers in permanent marker or paint.
Once you’ve laid the groundwork for a successful shopping trip, you can zip around the shop filling your containers with spices, grains, nuts, pasta, flours, sweeteners, oils, cleansers and more.
Flours and pastas and handy scoops are located in the center of the store.
A traditional bulk display, the likes of which you may recognize from your local health food store. The one at Precycle is well-stocked with a wide variety of foods.
Precycle had a small selection of produce on display here and in the refrigerated section, as well as bulk pickles and a kombucha tap (not pictured).
Also not pictured, Precycle offers personal hygiene products like bar soap and liquid Castile soap, and household cleaners like laundry powder and liquid dish detergent. There’s a small home goods section with food storage solutions like beeswax wrap (an alternative to plastic wrap) and lifestyle helpers in the form of copies of Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home.
So you’ve seen the pictures. Now for the moment of truth: Was Precycle worth the 2-hour round-trip travel time?
1. Precycle is about as well stocked as I could have hoped. It has the bulk spices, oils, and detergents that I can’t get anywhere else now that Integral Yoga was priced out of their West Village storefront.
2. Precycle is clean. The store has only been open since December, so perhaps this seems like a crazy thing to mention, but what I mean is that Precycle is tidy. Every jar, lemon, and baguette seems curated, and this curation bestows a sense of worth on the offerings and the shopping experience itself.
3. Precycle has good prices. Whether or not the reputation is deserved, health food stores, farmers markets, and alternative groceries are often maligned as being prohibitively expensive. And although shopping the zero waste way is an exercise in privilege and presents barriers (convenience and cost) to some shoppers, I end up paying about the same amount (or less) on my groceries when I buy from my preferred ethical vendors at the Greenmarket—and, now, Precycle.
There’s one obvious downside. It’s far. I live and work in Manhattan. I’m almost never in Brooklyn, not even socially. So if I’m going to shop at Precycle, chances are I’m making a very special, very pre-planned trip—and taking a big risk that I’ll run into a slightly high 20-something transplant peacocking in an extra bubbly bubble coat. But I’m willing to plan that plan and risk that risk. Because that’s just how real it is down at Precycle, guys.