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Owner Isabelle DeMillan poses in front of dispensers at The Mighty Bin in North Park, San Diego — a new “zero-waste” grocery store concept. (Photo: Mighty Bin)

SAN DIEGO — A unique grocery store concept opened in San Diego last month, inviting customers to bring their own containers and reduce the amount of waste created by food shopping.

The Mighty Bin, located a couple blocks from the iconic North Park Water Tower on El Cajon Boulevard, is a nod to the “zero-waste” movement doing away with single-use plastics and other environmentally harmful packaging.

The store displays its wares in “gravity dispensers” — those clear tubs with a release handle that you see holding cereal at the hotel buffet line — large jars and glass display cases.

Customers arrive with empty containers and totes, get the empty items weighed and labeled, and fill up with the food they want to purchase. Then they return to the counter to weigh their products and check out.

Gravity dispensers hold products at The Mighty Bin in North Park, San Diego — a new “zero-waste” grocery store concept. (Photo: Mighty Bin)

The store sells reusable jars and totes for people who don’t have enough containers to hold their purchases, and staff members are also collecting a selection of donated containers that they sanitize and then offer to customers.

Isabelle DeMillan is the passionate entrepreneur behind the project, which raised over $35,000 on Kickstarter and finally held a grand opening April 9 after an onerous permitting process.

In a phone interview Friday, DeMillan told FOX 5 her idea for the store was driven by personal experience. She had been frustrated with the lack of small, local options for reducing waste and eating more sustainably. Even as she tried to lessen her negative environmental impact, DeMillan found she was relying on orders from multiple sources — and still going through plenty of single-use plastics and other packaging to do so.

“I was tired of searching for organic food as well as non-toxic products,” DeMillan said. “I had to do a lot of research and I had to order online. I really formulated this store based off what a struggle it was for me.”

DeMillan said the “zero-waste” moniker is more aspirational than literal.

“It’s a goal. It’s something that we’re reaching for,” she told FOX 5. “It’s not something that we can necessarily achieve at this time.”

But the store and its customers certainly go through a lot less material than your typical supermarket. DeMillan has recycling and composting partners for what does go to waste — items like the polyethylene liners on large bulk bags that the shop uses for re-supply.

“I haven’t used my trash can once since we opened,” DeMillan said.

The store gets its food from a variety of sources, including organic distributors in Oregon and local vendors who take advantage of California’s “great growing season year-round” for produce.

The shop boasts a wide variety of items, and DeMillan said of one her fears — that she wouldn’t be enough of a “one-stop shop” for new customers — has so far gone unrealized. Visitors have told her they are surprised by how much she has in stock.

Still, late-pandemic supply chain issues affect small businesses all the more, and sometimes odd items (DeMillan mentioned garbanzo beans and pepper) are simply unattainable. To help shoppers know what’s in stock, The Mighty Bin publishes an updating inventory list that you can check out online.

The owner acknowledges that reducing waste is a daunting task that can’t be accomplished overnight. “There’s a lot of helplessness that we feel,” DeMillan said.

But she hopes The Mighty Bin can help spark a broader change in consumer habits.

“Big businesses, they’re a huge problem, but the thing is — they are still around because we’re supporting them,” DeMillan said. “We need to put our buying power to good. We need to put our money where it’s going to make the most change.”

You can read more on The Mighty Bin website or visit the shop Tuesday through Sunday at 2855 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite 4.