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Walking the Walk as a Zero-Waste Business

It’s not enough to sell low-waste, refillable products. How can you emulate zero-waste in your own business practices?

By Kayli Kunkel, Founder of Earth & Me

Since starting Earth & Me, an eco-conscious store and refill station in Queens, in 2020, I knew I wanted us to be a hub for sustainability in New York City.

I also knew that potential existed to generate a lot of waste as a new and growing business. From day one, I sought out to do things differently with how we thought about business waste and materials.

From offering bicycle deliveries to stashing as many shipping materials as possible, I made small steps early on. As we grew, these small steps have grown into a complete playbook of habits and protocols for keeping waste low as a business. While servicing thousands of customers each month with essentials, refills, and gifts, we output less trash per week than a typical household, with the vast majority of our job materials being upcycled, recycled, or composted and only a fraction being thrown out.

Here are a few ways we reduce waste output and focus on sustainable materials and supply chains in our own business operations. Feel free to adapt to your own business!

Create circular programs for your customers + community

A sharing community is critical for reducing waste. This not only builds trust in your mission and brings in new customers, but opens up opportunities that just aren’t available to individuals. There is great power in the community.

For our refill station, we hold space for community donated jars. We run them through a traditional three-compartment sanitization process and offer them back to customers for $0. This has greatly increased the rate of refill (customers don’t need to always remember to bring or buy a jar).

In separate instances, we’ve partnered with Scrap NYC to offer clothing recycling in our store, and now collect and divert 300 pounds of textile waste per month from landfill.

This can take on a charitable angle, too. We recently worked with a customer to offer sneaker donations through GotSneakers. By partnering as a community we are able to create ease (individuals don’t need to go through the process of requesting a bag via mail and returning it to FedEx) and excitement. We recycled over 60 pairs of sneakers in just a few weeks! We donated the funds to Heart of Dinner in honor of AAPI Heritage Month.

Some ideas we haven’t implemented yet, but would like to: a shared tool library, events for swapping clothing and art supplies, and Terracycle boxes available for the community to use.

Establish non-conventional waste streams – Terracycle, composting, refill

Traditional business waste streams include waste (garbage) and sometimes recycling, often carted by a private hauler. But expanding your waste streams opens up new channels to divert materials away from landfill.

It starts with an audit: You need to understand what materials you commonly produce and waste. Then you can search for non-refuse alternatives.

For example, we noticed that in lieu of plastic and bubble wrap, we started receiving many compostable packaging peanuts from our suppliers. While they could be thrown away, we decided instead to install our own compost processing in the backyard. We worked with our local botanical garden to source an Earth Machine, and began composting not only our own food scraps as a team but also packaging peanuts and brown Kraft paper. The compost itself will nourish our backyard garden and indoor plants or can be given to neighbors.

Terracycle also offers an impressive variety of boxes that can be filled with everything from human hair clippings (great for salons) to soft plastics, and shipped back to be sorted, reused, and diverted from landfill.

Creating small circular economies is also a fabulous way to reduce waste. We build relationships with suppliers to create “send back” programs in which we receive liquid products in large 5-gallon containers, clean and sanitize the containers, and send them back to our suppliers for reuse.

There is always a cost-benefit analysis in terms of shipping distance and cost, but in many instances we are able to work with our suppliers to coordinate lighter, collapsible enclosures. In some cases our suppliers even supply the return shipping labels. For local partners, this is even easier.

Utilize second hand & upcycle

Buying the furnishings and job supplies for a new store is a critical time to avoid waste, especially if you have things being shipped. We’ve found huge success in utilizing second hand furniture. Some great sources include local thrift shops, Buy Nothing Facebook groups, Craigslist, and even reaching out to the community when you have a need. For example, we put out a call for potting soil for a garden bed and ended up buying nothing new thanks to so many helpful customers!

There are also so many ways to upcycle materials. For example, we hang on to every clean, thin cardboard piece we receive so we can DIY business cards. How? We had a custom stamp made, which lets us stamp and brand upcycled paper. This saves us a ton of money on branding, too!

When making a plan to upcycle, it’s critical to build spaces into your storefront or storage facilities for second hand materials like shipping boxes, package fill, and more. We set aside sections of our basement for upcycled materials, boxes that are the right sizes to reuse, and more.

It’s a fantastic way to lower costs. For all of our shipped orders or gift wrapped purchases, for example, we reuse materials we already receive and have. Each order looks a little different, but our customers appreciate the thoughtfulness and low-waste packaging. We spend virtually $0 on all of the shipped orders and gift wrapped products we sell.

When upcycling isn’t possible, consider low-impact materials. For example, use compostable shipping labels and stickers when needed. (EcoEnclose is my favorite supplier.) Are you using 100% recycled paper for shopping bags? If you offer utensils, cutlery, or cups of any kind, are they washable or compostable?

It’s also important to provide team members with access to sustainable choices on the job. I already mentioned our compost bin, but we also offer compostable bamboo utensils, plates, and straws for any team members eating lunch in the shop.

Hold suppliers to account

By far, the number one way we reduce waste as a retail store is by holding our suppliers to account with our zero-waste principles. Your waste output is only ever as strong as your materials input. When placing a new inventory order, we approach every single supplier and express our desire to reduce waste in our business.

We clearly indicate our preferences for recyclable, reusable, and compostable materials, like corn-starch packing peanuts and items that are not individually wrapped in plastic. Sometimes we provide feedback if things aren’t up to scratch or if we have helpful recommendations for reducing waste. Despite foregoing plastic fill and bubble wrap, we have had very few product losses due to breakage.

Generally, suppliers are happy to comply in order to maintain a long-term partnership with us. In the cases where they aren’t able to comply, we often ask if we can send back the items for their own reuse; if not, we will find a reuse/upcycle possibility or, as a last resort, find alternative suppliers.

We also research supplier's own practices for their production. Do they find ways to reduce waste? Do they have a documented practice of prioritizing sustainable, natural materials? Are their packaging standards intentionally low-waste? We’re all on this journey together, and it’s important to learn from each other.

By following all these standards for being a low-waste business, we walk the walk of sustainability in our eco-conscious shop. The learning never stops, though, and the lessons we’ve gained from customers, partners, and our own experience will no doubt continue tipping dominoes for the better in the small business landscape.

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