As the necessity for the zero waste movement grows, cities across the U.S. are beginning to see more zero waste and bulk goods stores. To many residents, the concept may be new, but for others, the wait for such stores is finally coming to an end.

Building with intention

Isabelle DeMillan opened The Mighty Bin to fill a gap in her community.

“San Diego, surprisingly, is really not that sustainable… but I was surprised at the amount of people that told me, you know, I’ve been waiting for a store like this to open in San Diego,” said DeMillan, a sentiment that was echoed across the country by shop owners.

In the case of Jessica Thompson, owner and founder of Bee Joyful Shop, beeswax food wraps made at home with her kids turned into a retail located in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“One of my friends was like you should sell these on Etsy, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Thompson said, and Bee Joyful was built from there.

When Katie Rodgers-Hubbard founded Lite Foot Company, there was no brick-and-mortar.

“I wanted to be able to have a mobile truck so I could get around to introduce people to the concept and also provide that way of shopping,” Rodgers-Hubbard said.

She serves the greater Savannah, Georgia area as well as parts of southern South Carolina, but the storefront will open in Savannah in 2023. Rodgers-Hubbard said folks have already expressed excitement about a permanent place to shop to increase convenience.

Convenience was another reoccurring theme when store owners began forming their shops. DeMillan’s The Mighty Bin aims to reduce the worry and time surrounding research for her customer base.

“A big reason for opening up a place where you know people don’t have to worry about is this good or bad, it’s just all good. You can just go with it,” DeMillan said. “Taking that job off of people is another way to get people to really make these changes because it’s more convenient.”

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rachel Rupert cites the small business-friendly and walkable city as huge contributors to Indigo River & Co’s success.

“People who are out shopping walk into your store, and they’re like this is such a cool concept, I didn’t even know this existed,” Rupert said. “Word-of-mouth is like God in the Midwest.”

None of these shop owners push sustainability onto their customers. Instead, they lead by example suggesting products they use after testing everything in the store and talking endlessly with the product makers. Many products are made locally, proving the owners shop the way they talk.

“People tend to get eco-guilt very easily when they start making these choices,” Thompson said. “They look around [the store] and they’re like, oh I should be doing more. How come I haven’t done this in the past? This is all my fault.”

But Thompson reminds customers that we live in a single-use plastic world.

Rupert agrees, “I still have a travel container of coffee every once in a while. I get a burger or something from Chick-fil-A when I’m in a rush.”

It is not about being a stickler for eco-changes. What each of these stores provides is a place to learn to be intentional with your choices just as they are with theirs.

As Rodgers-Hubbard said, “Intentionality is going to be the way that you can do things.”

Shelves filled with zero-waste products

Education is key

No matter where you are in the continental U.S., the goal of your local zero waste and bulk good stores around the country is to educate. This can seem like false advertising in a capitalist society, but each store does its best.

Lauren Crossman worked at Thompson’s Kalamazoo store since the beginning of April 2021. Since beginning her work, she has seen changes in her own life such as remembering to bring her reusable grocery bags into the store and choosing a single multi-purpose cleaner rather than having many cleaners in plastic bottles.

“I have changed from somebody who thought I was eco-friendly to someone who actually is,” Crossman said, and some of those changes have been in making a difference in her college town.

Due to their locations in small towns that lean towards more progressive environmental politics, college-age students have greatly informed the shops. Being located near Savannah College of Art and Design has helped inform her own practices.

“I have a couple employees who are in the sustainable fashion program, and they are educating me on fabrics to use and what to look for. It’s a continual thing [for all of us],” Rodgers-Hubbard said.

Thompson hires from a similar age group since Bee Joyful Shop locations are near universities and said, “I ask all of our staff to help find things. Sometimes, they’re the best people because I can get very tunnel vision of this is what I’m looking for.”

However, each store’s demographic tends to range from college-age to over 80 years old. Older generations remember keeping marinara jars and jam jars for home use and younger generations are enthusiastic about preventing climate change. Everybody goes to the stores with different intentions, but each is a judgment-free zone with a priority on educating and meeting customers where they are in their eco journeys.

A better future

It can be daunting to consider making switches in your home after years of shopping at Target or Vons or Meijer for your cleaning products. However, Rupert shared the site Litterless which has compiled a list of zero waste, low waste and bulk goods stores in every state in the U.S., making it easy to find a store near you.

Additionally, Thompson always recommends starting in one room of your house, usually laundry is the easiest because you have soap, dryer sheets, a lint roller and not much else. Once you’ve made the switches to liquid refillable detergent and dryer balls, you can take a step back and actually see the impact you’ve made.

Price points can also be intimidating, but The Mighty Bin accepts EBT for the bulk goods they sell, and most refillable products available at Indigo River & Co., Bee Joyful Shop and Lite Foot Company last far longer because they are made of concentrates rather than watered down.

A collective switch to low-waste products will be gradual, but as more stores like these pop up around the country, more communities will invest in their own impact on the planet.

Images via Katie Rodgers Hubbard