Just as you’re lamenting Hong Kong’s lackadaisical approach to protecting the planet, along comes someone who restores your faith in humanity. For me, that person is entrepreneur and eco-warrior Tamsin Thornburrow, the brains behind Live Zero, the city’s first zero-waste grocery store. She is on a mission to help people cut down on the amount of plastic packaging they throw away and, if possible, to change their consumption habits and live without it at all.
“I’m almost 100% zero [plastic] but it didn’t happen overnight,” recounts Thornburrow, who grew up in Hong Kong and is an alumna of ESF King George V and the University of Hong Kong. “It takes time to adapt because it limits what you can buy and you can only do what works naturally for you. You can’t push someone into it. It’s like a diet. If it doesn’t fit in with your lifestyle, you’ll give up after a month or so.”
The idea for Live Zero came about when Thornburrow was stocking her lifestyle store Thorn & Burrow, which she opened in 2015 following her love for interior design. She wanted to find a water bottle that didn’t leak in her bag, one that looked cool and was reasonably priced. When the stainless-steel water bottles she eventually found started flying off her shelves, she realised Hongkongers weren’t so eco-unfriendly after all. And it snowballed from there.
There are two branches of Live Zero, both of which opened in 2018—one in Sai Ying Pun and the other in Sai Kung, which she co-owns. They are gloriously wholesome spaces, lined with alluring self-serve dispensers filled with products like nuts, cereals, oats, rice, flours and raw chocolate. You simply fill paper bags and pre-weighed jars with the amounts you need, which are subsequently re-weighed at the cash desk so you only pay for the food you buy. Customers are encouraged to bring their own containers but Live Zero also sells new glass jars or paper bags in various sizes as well as offering recycled jars that others have donated.
“We started with about 50 products and now offer more than 200—it’s like a big candy store,” she says. “It’s a cool way to shop but it’s a learning curve and can take more time than a regular supermarket. Our best-selling products are quinoa, oats, nuts and snacks, and we are 90% organic although our top priority is being able to buy in bulk.”
Nor is it only about foodstuff. There are homemade shampoos, conditioners and liquid soaps as well as beauty and household cleaning products, all kinds of reusables like drink bottles and food wraps and fabulous alternatives to plastic straws.
“My passion is sourcing,” she says. “I love finding the next best thing. But we like to ask our customers what they want and that’s what we stock—there’s no point in selling something nobody wants.”
The reaction to Live Zero has been very positive and Thornburrow feels times are a-changing, thanks to the growing awareness about the planet’s plastic plight, which is being spearheaded by children. “Kids are learning about the environment and then educating their parents by telling them what not to do. They easily adapt to new ways of doing things—they aren’t stuck in the routine of the old,” she says.
She acknowledges that living zero can seem daunting to the uninitiated and takes considerable planning—for example, you have to remember to bring reusable water bottles, utensils and coffee cups with you everywhere. Thornburrow feels the greenest solution is to refuse whichever single-use plastics you are offered and has recently started bringing an empty container with her to dinner to avoid either overeating or having the restaurant put leftovers in plastic boxes.
“Look at your home, in your rubbish bin and in your bag and see what items you can swap out,” she advises. “The worst thing is to throw everything away and start from scratch because that’s still waste. Just reuse old items [like Tupperware] until they wear out. It’s all about committing to a vision, choosing what to give up and making it a habit. Once it’s a habit, you won’t even think about it.”