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Zero waste stores are rare in Penang despite it being an eco-friendlier state, here’s why

In urban parts of Malaysia, especially in Klang Valley, residents are no strangers to the concept of a zero waste store. Outside of Klang Valley, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find them.

In Penang, we know of two: OWL Zero Waste Grocer (OWL) and Nak.Ed Farm, although the latter is more focused on providing soaps and detergents.

Curious as to why it seemed like the zero waste or eco-friendly trend wasn’t quite picking up in Penang, what we found actually contradicted our assumptions. In 2019, Penang was leading in national recycling rates, recording a rate of 42.69% which was higher than the national recycling rate of 21%. 

Penang even has its own Penang Green Council which started in 2011, a state initiative that not even Selangor (one of the most urban Malaysian states) planned on doing until 2020

With this data, you’d think there’d be more stores like these since Penangites are quite proactive in creating a greener city and community. 

Bustling with Penangites outside of lockdowns / Image Credit: OWL Zero Waste Grocer

Eco-friendly, but not yet zero waste

Posing this question to OWL, we learnt that while Penangites may be better-versed in recycling their trash, reducing their trash is still a new change not many have adopted.

This could be why the recycling rates and initiatives in Penang are impressive, yet so few zero waste stores have cropped up in the state.

OWL was founded in 2019 by Jo and Vivienne who ran it for 2 years before the current proprietors took over. Now, Cathie, Christine, Denise, and June, who are all mothers of young children, run the store.

The store is located in Tanjung Bungah, which is a suburb of Georgetown in Penang. There you can find groceries and toiletries in bulk, cleaning essentials, skincare, masks, etc. without plastic packaging, similar to what The Hive carries. 

Could this be a blue ocean in Penang?

Well… potentially. The team shared with Vulcan Post that since they took over during the MCO, they invested RM80K to cover the costs of products, rental, and utilities, and they earn about RM8K to RM10K in monthly revenue. 

Your typical zero waste store interior / Image Credit: OWL Zero Waste Grocer

Overall, it seems like a decent business to run if we’re taking OWL’s revenue as the standard. So what’s holding more Penangites back from venturing into this business?

The thing about zero waste stores is that they’re known for having products that are more expensive than what you’d get in a supermarket. Take for instance the price differences between products at OWL versus Tesco:

ItemOWL Zero WasteTesco
FlourRM5/kgRM1.35/kg
Multigrain riceRM12/kgRM8/kg
Bok choyRM4/100gRM0.50/100g
Brown sugarRM12/kgRM4.58/kg

One possible reason why entrepreneurs might be wary about opening more zero waste stores in Penang? There aren’t enough T20 residents to cater to. 

Zero waste is still catered to the rich

In Klang Valley especially, you’ll find that a lot of these stores are found in T20 and M40 areas. Based on the pricing in these stores, however, it’s likely that the T20 frequent them more.

The T20 group makes up about 37% of Malaysians as of August 2020, and of course, they’re largely centred in Klang Valley, making up almost half the population in KL and Putrajaya.

Comparatively, Penang’s T20 group (18.8%) is only slightly over half of Selangor’s T20 group (33.2%). Even Johor, which has the fourth-largest T20 group in Malaysia (19.8%) only has 2 zero waste stores which are MINUS Zero Waste and The General Store by Common Goods Market, hinting at a possible correlation between T20 group sizes and the number of zero waste stores in a state.

What’s worth noting: Speaking of income groups, a report by The Edge brings up a good point about how T20 is simply a term that defines how much income a household earns. If there is a sole breadwinner shouldering the needs of a family of 5 in a T20 household, they may not be necessarily well off anyway, but this analysis would yield different findings on a case-by-case basis.

Never say never

While the spending power in Penang for zero waste stores may not be as great as Klang Valley’s, it’s not at all a bad idea to start up such a venture there.

It will take a lot of education and initiatives to raise awareness in order to convert Penangites who are already recycling into ones who adopt zero waste. While easier said than done, what OWL has shown is that there is an audience receptive to the lifestyle.

To further their mission, they actively work with schools, colleges, and companies on how to ease into a zero waste lifestyle. For example, they recently had a virtual event over Zoom with 100 participants from TAR College, and have an upcoming one with Keysight. 

Committed to making sure this space will be filled with people again / Image Credit: OWL Zero Waste Grocer

“It’s an exciting development as these groups approached us in the first month of us opening in Permai, Tanjung Bungah, Penang,” the team said, pointing to a growing potential.

One could debate the necessity of zero waste stores since it’s possible to DIY the lifestyle, but the fact is that such stores exist to make the transition easier. Many urbanites lack the energy or time to dedicate themselves to a DIY zero waste lifestyle, so stores like OWL are a way to lower the barriers to adoption.

As zero waste adoption grows and so do the stores, it’s likely that we will see prices being lowered, allowing the lifestyle to be more accessible to other income groups.

  • You can learn more about OWL Zero Waste Grocer here.
  • You can read about more zero waste stores we’ve written here.

Featured Image Credit: Cathie, Christine, Denise, and June, current proprietors of OWL Zero Waste Grocer

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