CAMBRIDGE — On a recent afternoon, Sarah Levy picked up an empty pickle jar from a shelf in her storefront, sniffed it, and then suggested a customer fill it with soap. There’s a take-a-jar, leave-a-jar policy at Cleenland, Levy’s new “low-waste, no-shame” store that lets shoppers stock up on cleaning supplies using their own bottles. And as an early adopter of an emerging shift in American consumption habits, she has become adept at getting the gherkin smell out of glass.
“This is not a trend; it’s a resurgence of interest in re-using instead of recycling,” said Levy, who opened Cleenland in Central Square in June. After weighing her customers’ jars, she commiserates with them over global environmental challenges.
“We’re not going to recycle our way out of this problem,” said Ksenija Broks, a teacher from Roslindale.
As consumers such as Broks seek to limit the waste they create, more local entrepreneurs like Levy are stepping in to serve them and have begun opening storefronts — physical, mobile, and online.
The Boston General Store is selling a growing assortment of zero-waste accessories. Make & Mend sells secondhand arts and crafts supplies in Somerville’s Bow Market. The Green Road Refill bus tours Cape Cod selling plastic-free alternatives to home and body products. Last month, Sabrina Auclair launched Unpacked Living, an online storefront that she says is the only plastic-free store in Massachusetts.
Recent changes in the Chinese recycling industry have upended the way America deals with waste. China had processed US recyclables for decades but is now rejecting “foreign garbage” as part of a broader national antipollution campaign. The decision has reverberated in municipalities across the United States, forcing Massachusetts authorities to place new restrictions on materials they accept curbside in recycling bins. In so doing, it’s also forced more consumers to reconsider the amount of waste they create.
Julia Wilson, who tracks corporate sustainability efforts for the Nielsen research firm, says 73 percent of consumers are looking to shift their consumption habits to reduce their environmental impact, and she predicts that they’ll spend $150 billion on sustainable goods by 2021. Young consumers in particular lack the brand loyalty of their parents, she said, meaning they’re willing to make purchase decisions that align with their values. And that presents an opportunity.
“It opens the door for new entrepreneurs and upstart products and brands who are thinking about things differently,” she said.
Some entrepreneurs are using a “circular economy” model in which goods are delivered in durable packages and sent back when they’re empty. Boston-based ThreeMain launched earlier this year selling cleaning products in reusable aluminum bottles. The most well-funded endeavor, Loop, which expanded to Massachusetts last month, sells 100 major brands including Haagen Dazs, Crest mouthwash, and Clorox wipes in reusable containers.
Tom Szaky has spent over 17 years processing hard-to-recycle materials as the founder of TerraCycle, and said the challenges in the recycling economy led him to launch Loop. “Waste has really moved from a problem to a crisis in the last 24 months,” he said. “And the real root cause of waste is the idea of disposability, which was really only invented in the 1950s.”
Loop’s goal, he said, is to make buying items in durable, reusable containers as “incredibly convenient and incredibly affordable” as the ones we’re currently buying — and tossing — when we’re through. “Our goal is that it feels to you as disposable as possible,” he said. “I want you to feel like it’s a throwaway lifestyle.”
The service has been operating in Paris and New York for the past few months and will have as many as 500 products by the year’s end, Szaky said. Partnerships with Kroger and Walgreen stores will launch next year.
To the enlightened observer, these entrepreneurs aren’t so much trying to reinvent commerce as they are trying to take it back to a more traditional form of selling goods.
Levy recognizes the difficulty involved with changing consumer habits, but she said the model works because she’s selling necessities. “You don’t go a week without hand soap,” she notes. And she’s hopeful, as the popularity of zero-waste shops has exploded abroad in the United Kingdom, Canada, and particularly in Australia, where the nonprofit Plastic Free Foundation launched the #PlasticFreeJuly campaign, which has become a global phenomenon.
Auclair’s path to entrepreneurship started in the shampoo aisle of a Market Basket. The Colombia native has lived in Massachusetts for over a decade and grew to hate the American habit of buying everything in plastic. Because her apartment building in Beverly doesn’t recycle, she felt frustrated by the amount of waste she created.
“If I buy a shampoo plastic bottle, I’m buying trash,” she said, recalling her Market Basket revelation. “I vowed that day that I was going to quit plastic.”
Auclair found a community of like-minded consumers online and began to document her attempt to live plastic-free on Instagram. She created the Facebook group Zero Waste Massachusetts before launching Unpacked Living. The site sells such items as bamboo toothbrushes, metal lunch tins, and lip balms in cardboard containers. It’s a small endeavor — she has invested about $2,000 on the products, and her warehouse is her guest bedroom — but she said it’s a start.
Area food suppliers say concerns about plastic waste are driving a steady increase in bulk buying, particularly following the closure of the Harvest Co-op last year. Matt Gray has seen sales of his bulk section and bottled milk soar in his Somerville storefront, Neighborhood Produce. Alys Myers is working to build Supply, a bulk delivery business out of Dorchester, and Roche Bros. recently added a bulk section in its Downtown Crossing store. And since taking over the store’s operations last summer, Greg Saidnawey, the 26-year-old fourth-generation owner of Pemberton Farms market in North Cambridge, said he has doubled the amount of items the store sells (it now offers 120 bulk bins, 65 spices, three oils, four soap products, six pet foods, and 12 beverages).
“The demand was there,” he said, “and we took the opportunity and ran with it.”
Gergana Nenkov, a marketing professor at Boston College who studies how consumers engage with messages around sustainability, said these entrepreneurs are responding to the shifting attitudes of younger consumers. “There’s a big concern about ‘What are you doing for the world?’ ” she said, a message that “startups are leading the way on, and big companies will follow.”
Until then, for consumers like Julia Burrell, living a low-waste life can still feel a lot like a full-time job. In January, the self-described “environmental atrocity” made a decision to rid her life of plastic, documenting her effort on Instagram as The Crazy No Plastic Lady. It’s still hard to buy meat and cheese in plastic-free packaging, she said, and she’s been slapped on the wrist while attempting to use her own containers in the bulk aisle of such stores as Whole Foods. “Living this lifestyle requires a lot of research,” she said, sitting in front of a collection of empty glass jars that line the mantel of her East Boston home. “And a lot of seeing what you can get away with.”
But Burrell is hoping her Instagram account might lead to a new career coaching organizations on taking steps toward reducing their waste. “If I focus my energies into this, I think I could parlay this into a successful business,” she said. “It would be the most meaningful job I have ever had.”