When I first heard about Package Free, a store that sells household basics and staples without (you guessed it) packaging, I was intrigued. Sure, I already had a large cache of supplies to help me wend my way toward a zero-waste lifestyle—reusable bags, glass jars, travel mug, bar soap, white vinegar, safety razor and gazillion recyclable replacement blades—but I wanted to see this store for myself. I imagined it would be a beacon of minimalism shining out in a world darkened by crass consumerism.
So, I went to Package Free this weekend and was uninspired—nay, dismayed.
This tiny store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn probably started with the best of intentions but it has become an unholy example of what happens when the zero-waste movement tries to monetize. There is virtually nothing in this store that a person would ever need to use.
Allow me to elaborate. A large portion of the shelves at Package Free are devoted to drinking accessories. Reusable mugs come in a range of styles. The kind that rattle around on carabiners, the kind that expand and collapse, the kind that are insulated, the kind that are actually just mason jars with a sippy cup lid attached. If variety is the spice of life, conscious drinkers will get a kick out of the display at Package Free. I found it to be overwhelming and unnecessary. I’m sure it’s possible to improve and continue improving upon the ordinary travel mug or water bottle until the end of time. I’m not sure anyone needs every iteration along the way. But it’s the straw situation that really inspired my consternation.
Good gracious, the straws. Straws of every possible stripe. Straight straws. Bendy straws. Short straws. Tall straws. Copper straws. Stainless steel straws. Bamboo straws. Straw cleaning brushes. Shorter straw cleaning brushes. Wider straw cleaning brushes. A signature Package Free straw that must have been about and inch-and-a-half wide and a foot-and-a-half tall. What is it with straws? Who is trying to wrestle that massive bamboo straw into their drink? And is it possible that a human could find a way to suck down its 8 glasses a day without one?
The portion of the store that wasn’t devoted to mugs and bottles and straws constituted about three-fourths of the space. Spread across these displays were metal food storage containers and tiffins, wood combs and hair brushes and toothbrushes, menstrual cups, moisturizers, cleansers, safety razors and complicated triple blade razors (why?), eco-dusters and gizmos for cleaning and who knows what all.
A lot of this stuff isn’t strictly necessary, of course. Why buy a tricky-looking eco-duster when the world has already invented multi-purpose microfiber cloths, or when you can rip an old t-shirt into dusting rags? Answer: Because it’s harder to build a thriving business on shirt rags than it is on cultivating a perceived need for single-function products. That said, I felt like, “Okay maybe this store isn’t as conscious as I expected, and it’s not subverting capitalist norms of need and desire but I guess it’s pretty benign?”
That sentiment carried me through my journey—until I noticed the hair brush cleaner. The hair brush cleaner is what happens when an artist stays cooped up in their studio too long decoupaging and inhaling Mod Podge fumes. Or else it’s what happens when kids who grew up on Sky Mall, Spencer’s, or the home goods section of Urban Outfitters get into the eco scene and entirely miss the point.
What is this thing?
A: A wood and metal brush designed to be dragged across your hairbrush, thereby removing built-up hair that has collected over days or weeks of daily brushing.
B: How your fingers outsource their chore list.
C: The thing wedged at the back of your bathroom vanity drawer that you won’t find until three years from now when you’ll remark, “What is this even for and why is it covered in toothpaste?”
So that’s my visit to Package Free in a nutshell. Luckily, this shop is only a few stops away from Precycle on the L train, and the trip to Brooklyn was not a total wash.