The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Ana Duque is the founder and CEO of The Heal Room in Pawtucket, which is Rhode Island’s first zero-waste retail shop and refill station for bath, body, and cleaning products. The company carries all ethical, organic, and small business-owned products.
Q: What is The Heal Room?
Duque: We’re the first zero-waste retail shop in Rhode Island where we have refill stations for bath, body, and cleaning products, and sell mindfulness tools. Our mission is to help heal people and the planet through our model, but also through events and workshops that we host that are focused on educating the public around sustainability.
What do we know about container or product waste in Rhode Island, and beyond?
In Rhode Island, our current annual solid waste generation, including recycling, is estimated to be approximately 1.5 million tons per year, with the majority not being recycled or reused. Bleach and cleaning bottles are one of the most common items pulled from the marine waters of Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport. Between 2012 and 2020, a longtime quahogger picked up more than 35,600 pieces of trash along the banks of the Sakonnet River and at the Goosewing Beach Preserve in Rhode Island. Of that, more than 15,000 pieces were plastic bottles and aluminum cans.
Nationally, only about 5 to 6 percent of our plastics are recycled and production of plastic is increasing. About 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year — a whole garbage truck per minute. If no action is taken, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
So think of all the bottles we use and then throw in the recycling bin. Only a fraction of it gets recycled. Until that changes, I really think “refill stations” are the way to go.
What made you think of this idea? How does this fit into your own background?
I went to school for kinesiology and I started working for a nonprofit when I graduated from college. During that time, I started learning a lot more about different social injustices and became passionate about advocating and learning more about how an individual person can make their own impact.
Environmental injustices and environmental racism was what I really latched onto. The toxins in our water and our air can literally impact our health, and specifically the health of people who live in low-income communities that are usually made up of people of color. But at the time, I was living in Los Angeles where I had a lot of access to stores that did have health alternatives and refill options. When I moved back to Rhode Island, there was nothing accessible and I wanted to bring it to my own community.
So how exactly does the refill station work?
People bring their own bottle, we fill it, and consumers pay for the product by the ounce. We also have “forever bottles” for sale, which are made of stainless steel or glass.
How are you growing?
We’re growing our model to offer local delivery to customers, which is launching in 2024. With a subscription model, people can continue to have their refills for items like shampoo, laundry liquid, and dish powder, and then get it delivered directly to their house. It will be very reminiscent of the “milkman model” where you leave your milk bottle outside, but it will be your open containers instead. The Heal room will come, refill your bottle, and then leave iton your porch.
What are your goals for the future?
Down the road, I’d like to pivot completely to the mobile model with our van, while still offering our services at pop-ups at farmer’s markets or different parking locations. It will save us overhead costs if we close the physical location, but it will be a very slow transition to get to that point. People are working and can’t always make it to the store, and we want this to be an accessible and convenient option.