How Does A Zero Waste Store Survive A Pro-Plastic Pandemic?
If, at the start of 2020, you had wandered into Sustain LA, you would have found a colorful assortment of eco-friendly, sustainable home and personal care items. Wax food wraps, organic wool dryer balls, bamboo toothbrushes, vegan floss — everything you'd need to finally end your toxic relationship with single-use plastics. Better late than never, right?
The homey Highland Park boutique specializes in products designed to actually degrade in landfills (unlike most of the stuff we buy). Don't feel guilty if you're not walking around with all your trash packed into a single mason jar. The goal here isn't to shame people for throwing stuff away but to help us reduce the amount of waste we produce. That task is just as critical now as it was before COVID-19. But the pandemic, with its ban on bringing your own bags to grocery stores and its double-bagged takeout food, has dealt the zero waste lifestyle a serious setback.
Although single-use plastics aren't necessarily safer than reusable alternatives, many consumers who are concerned about disease transmission have once again embraced them. (We're not including disposable personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields.) This past summer, some American households were producing up to 50% more waste than they did before COVID-19.
Will America's rekindled love affair with plastic be a brief fling or a long-lasting marriage? Only time will tell. In the meantime, zero waste stores are still trying to help us break our plastic habit.
The Force Awakens
Sustain LA founder Leslie Campbell can't predict the future but what she does know is that in a single year, her store's inventory has shifted dramatically.
The shop still carries bamboo utensils and stainless steel straws but, "Those sales decreased rather rapidly," Campbell says. "Hand soap, laundry liquid and hand sanitizer, those are big volume right now."
To embrace this shift, Campbell, like many other proprietors of sustainable stores, had to adapt her business model at record speed.
Before the pandemic, Sustain LA offered an in-store refill station where customers could bring reusable containers (or purchase them on site) and fill up on environmentally-friendly detergents, soaps, shampoos and lotions. They could also buy reusable or biodegradable personal items such as straws and toothbrushes. Sustain LA also rented glassware, beverage dispensers, dishes and utensils so customers could reduce waste when hosting events.
"With the rentals, we had a busy wedding season lined up for spring and summer, and all of our couples canceled or changed plans," Campbell says.
Although in-store shopping was put on hold when L.A. County issued its first stay-at-home order in mid-March, Sustain LA was allowed to stay open because it sold essential items such as soap and laundry detergent.
"We were fortunate. We did phone orders for a couple of days while we photographed our entire inventory and created an online store," she says.
Campbell set up a contact-free pickup system in the store's parking lot, delivering items like soap and shampoo in reusable glass containers that customers could return for a deposit. Her team expanded its delivery service and reduced its delivery fees. They worked with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and, by August, had secured approval for customers to, once again, bring clean containers to the store so Campbell could sanitize and refill them.
The front of the store transformed from a cheery collection of sustainable products into a packed warehouse. Campbell and her approximately eight employees brought in additional zero waste items requested by customers. Bulk catnip and wool cat toys were at the top of the list. Even cats get bored during a quarantine.
"We've had small progressions along the way," Campbell says. During the summer and fall, rentals for micro-events began to pick up but since new stay-at-home orders were issued in November, rentals have stalled. As of December 21, Sustain LA remains open for in-store refills and walk-ins, albeit with a limit of two customers at a time. They also continue to offer outdoor, contact-free pickup, delivery and shipping. And the customers have kept coming.
Pandemic aside, Campbell's overarching goal remains the same since opening Sustain LA in 2009 — making it easier for people to part with plastic, not an easy task.
In 2018, the United States generated approximately 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste, or 4.9 pounds per person, per day. Our nation's recycling rate has hovered at 35% for the last several years. Germany, as a comparison, has a recycling rate of approximately 68%.
"As a nation, we are fairly dismal at recycling," says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the National Resources Defense Council. "We're just not doing a good job."
And that was before the pandemic.
While some restrictions have eased — reusable bags have returned to California grocery stores although you'll have to pack your own groceries in them — plastic waste generation is climbing nationwide. Pro-plastic lobbying groups are exploiting the pandemic and its hygiene concerns to push back against pre-COVID-19 plastic bans
Prior to Covid-19, the fight against plastic in the U.S. was building steam as state after state banned single-use items like plastic grocery bags. Zero waste stores have been popping up in major cities across the world including New York, Vancouver, London and Los Angeles in the last decade.
The success of zero waste stores is entirely up to consumers. Many manufacturers have never cared about wasteful, unnecessary packaging — and they still don't.
The Plastic Menace
At the turn of the 20th century, before markets became "super," clerk-run grocery stores were the norm. When you walked into one of these establishments, you'd hand over your shopping list and a clerk would assemble everything for you, weighing out items such as sugar and flour from bulk bins.
"Back then, if you wanted a 25-pound bag of sugar, you didn't care who was selling it, you just cared about the best prices," says John Stanton, a food marketing professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
That all changed when Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly market in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916. To keep operating costs low, he ditched clerks and created the self-service grocery model. Hefting a basket, customers could pick out the specific, pre-packaged groceries they wanted from neatly organized shelves. Customers didn't have to wait around for a clerk, so they were able to save time.
"Packaging is like a salesman," says Stanton. Now that a clerk wasn't selecting items for people, groceries had to grab the customer's attention, transforming them into tiny billboards. "Companies had to say why you should buy our sugar over some other brand," he says.
Attack Of The Clones
World War II forced manufacturers to elevate their packaging game. Cory Bernat, a public historian and graphic designer, explains that during the war, the federal government pushed producers to create shelf-stable foods that could be shipped en mass to soldiers. When the war ended, these companies kept producing these items, repackaged for the civilian market.
"It was good for business, they were already set up to manufacture that. You just had to remarket and repackage it and, voila, you had Easy Cheese and TV dinners," Bernat says.
Food manufacturers stressed consolidation and efficiency. Lightweight, durable plastics helped them achieve these goals. Bernat points to glass versus plastic bottles during the 1960s and '70s. Before the introduction of plastics, markets encouraged customers to return glass bottles for a deposit so bottlers could reuse them. That takes time and resources so bottlers switched to plastic, which didn't shatter like glass and was lighter.
Mid-century consumers adored plastics. They were science fiction come to life, a sign of efficiency and rocket ship-modernity.
"Post-war, people thought canned food was more sanitary than fresh or frozen. People, back then, associated freshness and sanitation with packaging," Bernat says. Supermarkets started wrapping produce in plastic to compete with processed foods.
Companies encouraged plastic consumption. "We used to reuse things but companies changed that. Anything that is single-serving is designed for you to simply throw away and not think about," Bernat says.
"There's very little regulation on manufacturers having a responsibility for the end-of-life for their products," Sustain LA's Campbell says.
All that packaging has to go somewhere but as individuals that's not our responsibility... right?
"We consumers have been discouraged from thinking about it," Bernat says. "That's not an accident."
Revenge Of The Landfill
In the U.S., municipalities are primarily responsible for developing and financing their recycling programs. Some of that funding comes from taxpayers and some comes from the sale of recyclables.
Although the vast majority of Americans have access to some kind of recycling program, whether it's curbside, drop-off or a combo of the two, most of us do a lot of "wish-cycling." If we think it can be recycled, we toss it into the blue bin.
Unfortunately, recycling isn't straightforward. Plastic grocery bags, while technically recyclable, gum up the works of recycling machinery. Takeout containers and greasy pizza boxes are often too contaminated by food residue to be recycled.
Manufacturers, Hoover says, aren't making sure the packaging they produce can be recycled. Take, for instance, a juice box. Hoover points out that it's typically made from a blend of paper, aluminum, plastic and adhesive. In theory, much of this material can be recycled. "But it's actually a nightmare to recycle," Hoover says.
Items with different composite materials are too difficult to process at mass scale. Even when you have items made from the same kind of plastic — a soda bottle and a yogurt container, for example — they often can't be recycled together.
"The bottle might be blow-molded and the yogurt container might be injection-molded, so that changes their melting temperatures," Hoover says.
Complicating the issue further, China, which used to process roughly half of the world's recyclables, is no longer accepting much of our nation's waste. In 2017, China announced it was limiting the amount of waste it was accepting. In January 2018, it banned the import of many types of plastics and paper, and the recyclables they accepted for processing had to meet exacting contamination standards.
"Our systems weren't set up to have that low level of contamination," Hoover says. Since the average American's recyclables all go into one big bin, valuable paper often gets contaminated sitting next to those greasy takeout boxes and it's hard to hit those standards.
Recyclables once bound for China are, instead, going to landfills, sitting in storage facilities or being shipped to other countries, probably in Southeast Asia. Even some of these countries, like Malaysia, are tired of the environmental consequences of handling our never-ending trash, and they're starting to say no. While we rework our domestic recycling infrastructure to deal with the Chinese ban, we're left with a problem: How do we stop creating so much waste?
A New Hope
Campbell and her family have been living the zero waste lifestyle for a decade. She says it was easy to eliminate the low-hanging, single-use plastic fruit: grocery bags, water bottles and takeout containers. The challenge was replacing household items like laundry detergents, shampoos and deodorants that come in durable plastic containers.
"The jug itself is still a very useful and durable container. It doesn't seem right to throw that away so often," she says. Sustain LA was born from this need.
Reuse, Campbell notes, is what's important with zero waste. That plastic laundry detergent jug might not be as Instagram-ready as a fancy glass container, but by reusing and refilling that hefty behemoth, you're keeping it out of the waste stream. Even with this gradual reuse approach, you're still preventing single-use disposables from reaching a landfill.
Danielle Riley of Riley's General Store, which doesn't have a brick-and-mortar location but delivers in the San Gabriel Valley, understands the importance of a gradual approach to zero waste.
"We live super busy lives and it shouldn't be on us to have to fit our trash into a single mason jar at the end of the year. Companies should be held responsible for making packaging that lives forever," Riley says.
Until that happens, she is focusing on delivering refills of sustainable household and personal care products.
"My whole goal is to provide affordable refills and to approach this from a common-sense perspective, providing the items people in my area actually need," she says.
For Riley's General Store, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this November, the lockdown in March ramped up customer demand, especially for her laundry detergents and soaps.
"It worked out because my deliveries were already contactless," Riley says, adding that she currently doesn't charge a delivery fee.
"We definitely had to pivot quite a bit in how we do things," says Julie Darrell, owner of Bring Your Own Long Beach. The zero waste store, which debuted in 2017 as a pop-up, has two brick-and-mortar locations in Long Beach. "We ended up selling out immediately of hand soap, hand sanitizers, dish soaps, all of the very basic things you need."
BYOLB, which has a refill station for cleaners and soaps, also carries a line of reusables like bamboo utensils, reusable coffee filters, and stainless steel food containers, but the focus now during the pandemic is on cleaners and soaps. Although the stores briefly closed during the initial lockdown, BYOLB has remained open as an essential business, switching to curbside pickup and local deliveries. Customers can set appointments to pick up online orders but they aren't allowed inside the stores.
Moving forward, Darrell hopes to carry more dry goods and she has added a number of items that aren't usually available in bulk at grocery stores, such as dry herbs and spices. Despite the pandemic, Darrell says her client base has remained steady. "There are some stores where you just can't avoid plastics now," she says.
Lauren and Joseph Macrino opened their zero-waste business, Tare Grocery in Highland Park, during the pandemic.
"The current grocery landscape makes it extremely difficult to avoid unnecessary packaging," says Joseph Macrino. The goal was to make Tare a one-stop shop for most grocery items while eliminating single-use packaging. The original model focused on customers bringing in their own containers, weighing them and filling up on bulk items like olive oil, nut butters, vinegar, flour, yeast, nuts, spices, cereal and plant-based milks.
"Initially we couldn't even get the health inspector to come and give us the okay to open," Joseph says. They eventually got the greenlight — on Earth Day, April 22, no less — but there was a catch: no self service and no bulk bins. So they essentially became personal shoppers.
Customers can bring clean containers to the store (which Tare sanitizes once again), purchase glass jars or use Tare's 100% post-consumer recycled paper bags but they can't touch the products. From granola to bulk almonds, the Macrinos serve or decant everything.
"We're getting to know our customers, their names and cooking habits. That's the beauty of serving everyone," he says.
Hopefully, that will make it easier to say goodbye to single-use plastics.
"We do the hard work for the individuals who are on the zero waste journey. We find the items they need to be zero waste," Campbell of Sustain LA says. She adds that she tries to work with local producers who prioritize sustainability and ethical production.
Ditching plastic straws and water bottles doesn't seem like the overarching solution to our plastic addiction but it's a start. Although the pandemic has made it harder to cut down on plastic consumption, you can still limit your usage.
"It's overwhelming, when you go for a walk and you see discarded masks and plastic gloves on the ground, but it's a lot to ask of people right now to avoid plastic," Darrell says. Even she has had to purchase items that are wrapped in plastic packaging.
For some households, it doesn't make financial sense to ditch single-use disposables and plastic packaging altogether. A green lifestyle is expensive and the impetus for reuse shouldn't be on the consumer but until that happens, even eliminating one single-use disposable item from a household — say switching from disposable water bottles to reusable ones — is a good start.
Zero waste stores like Sustain LA, Riley's General Store, Tare and BYOLB, are all about starting gradually, one decision at a time.
"If you change that one habit, you can start looking at the next thing and thinking what else you can do," Riley says. "It's a great catalyst for real change."