Berkeley restaurants

Bay Area zero-waste stores thrive after pandemic pollution wave

When Shanti Jourdan received her first bike delivery of laundry detergent, Epsom salt and olive oil from Re-Up Refill Shop in Oakland, she thought she had found the Holy Grail.

“I’ve been really into the idea of ​​zero waste and reusing instead of recycling since I was a young teenager,” said Jourdan, 30, a yoga teacher and astrologer in Oakland. She posted photos of the jugs and jars on Instagram, neatly labeled with embossed black tape. “It was like it was too good to be true.”

It was late 2020, the year Re-Up Refill Shop opened selling bulk products in reusable containers from a few shipping containers in West Oakland. The company has since expanded to a retail store in Rockridge, at a time when several similar businesses have started up in the Bay Area, all focused on avoiding single-use plastic.

Called zero waste or refill stores, these stores specialize in products such as non-toxic glass cleaner and organic foaming hand soap that customers can pour into their own reused containers. The variety of household cleaners and body products can eclipse that of the most dedicated cooperative grocer.

Proponents say reducing or eliminating single-use plastic is key to tackling ocean pollution and climate change – the latter due to petroleum products and their emissions involved in making plastics. Although it has roots going back decades, the Bay Area’s zero waste movement was beginning to hit the mainstream before the pandemic. Cafes began proclaiming a total ban on single-use cups, and tech companies announced they would serve employee meals in reusable containers rather than plastic clam shells.

But that momentum was lost when the pandemic hit. Public health orders prohibit the use of reusable cups and shopping bags as well as bulk purchases at the grocery store. Customers responded to the uncertainty with an increase in online shopping.

According to waste management firm Recology, packaging from increased restaurant takeout and online consumption during shelter-in-place helped increase San Francisco’s residential waste by 6% in May 2019 to May 2020. At retail giant Amazon, plastic waste is up 29% from 2019 to 2020, according to a report by conservation group Oceana.

However, once it became clear that surfaces were not the primary vector for the coronavirus, charging business owners said sales began to soar, possibly in reaction to the increase in plastic packaging.

“Having to sit with the total amount of plastic they were consuming was kind of overwhelming,” said Aubri Thompson of skincare line The Rebrand, which sells face washes and moisturizers in jars. glass. When customers run out, they can order refills in aluminum containers, which are more recyclable. “In some ways, COVID was kind of a trigger.”

Thompson, who started the company in 2020, manufactures its products in Oakland and sells bulk versions at refill stores such as Resourcefill in Lafayette, Fillgood in Berkeley and Re-Up Refill Shop. There are now at least 10 such stores in the area. Most specialize in household items and personal care products that are hard to find elsewhere, although some also offer bulk food items.

Many customers note that so many everyday products are plastic, from washed lettuce leaves to dish soap, but very little of that plastic is recyclable. In the United States, the world’s largest consumer of plastic, only 8.7% of plastic is recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are trapped in the wishcycling cycle. People feel good about throwing their plastics in the recycling bin and thinking they have a second life,” said Matt Zimbalist, co-owner of Re-Up Refill Shop.

Legislation has sought to reduce the amount of plastic in circulation, including California’s 2014 ban on single-use shopping bags. Introduced in 2021, the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would ban certain types of single-use plastics that are not recyclable and require minimum recycled content for certain plastic products. But these efforts have had limited impact.

For Joan Ayers, a turning point in her life was learning that China no longer accepted plastic recycling from the United States in 2018 and most of it was simply sent to landfill. In 2020, she launched her business, Homebody Refill, bringing bulk containers of hair, body, kitchen and laundry products to Farmers’ Markets in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, where customers could distribute them in their homes. own jars.

“I’m not an activist, but I like to have my individual voice heard in some way,” she said. “I will change my buying habits and I will try to help others do the same.”

Last year, Ayers opened a retail store in Sevastopol. She buys products from companies such as Oakland’s Puretergent, which delivers her all-purpose cleaner, laundry detergent and dish soap in 5-gallon plastic jugs that she collects to refill.

It’s an example of the circular economy, the idea that more of the world’s finite natural resources should be used and reused rather than thrown away.

Mudlab, a cafe and store in Oakland, is an example of how the concept of the circular economy comes into play when customers buy jars of pickles and preserves from Happy Girl Kitchen, a Monterey County business. They pay a $1 deposit which they get back when they return the jars, which Mudlab washes and uses in an in-café cup rental program, to avoid single-use cups.

Amanda Drexler, 24, who buys skincare products at Rebrand and bulk food and other products at Re-Up, said prices in the refill world are lower than in the conventional market for some products, especially food, while others are comparable or higher.

For those interested in reducing plastic waste, she recommends starting with just one area of ​​your life, like bringing empty shampoo bottles and refilling them at a refill store. Bottles can be reused for years.

“Take it one step at a time,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be an overnight transformation.”

Tara Duggan is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @taraduggan