What Exactly is “Zero Waste”at the Debra’s Refillery?

and is it Really, Literally “ZERO”?

Let’s start with the simple answer: NO.   

Not even when you roll up to the Refillery on your fixed gear bike, and ride away with Maine-grown pesticide-free oats in your grandpa’s hemp fiber saddlebags.  There’s still waste in the system.   

The farmers probably use a tractor.  The tractor is made from metals that were mined.  Mining produces waste.  Now, the tractor runs on gasoline.  90% of the time, gasoline also delivers the oats to us.   The oats come in a bag.  It might be a nice paper or textile bag.  But it still gets discarded.  A 50-pound bag paper bag is certainly less waste than fifty 1-pound plastic bags, but it’s still waste.  It’s still not zero.  The list goes on and on.  

So, why work so hard for “zero waste,” when we aren’t even getting to zero?   

As Anne-Marie Bonneau is famous for saying: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly.  We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”   

We can be those millions.  That’s pretty inspiring.    

Room for Improvement 

The Bonneau quote can be inspiring.  It can also be a bit of a cop-out, if it lets us rationalize half measures.  I think we’re all guilty of half-measures.   

To be clear, I’m not judging anyone.  Speaking for myself, I didn’t look my waste stream in the eyes (so to speak) until 2019.  Up through 2018, I lived in the city.  Every Tuesday morning, I took my trash to the curb; every Tuesday night, I came home and it was gone.  It was magical!  I liked the idea of minimizing waste, but I’m not sure how much I actually tried.  Now that I’m in the suburbs, we load our trash into the car.  There’s nothing magical about that.  You see how much there is.  It’s inescapable.  There’s about a bag a week, in addition to the recycling and compost 

I can do better.  How’s that for a New Year’s Resolution?   

Waste Vs. Energy vs. Pollution 

When we’re talking about waste, it’s important to remember that waste isn’t just waste.  It’s also energy and pollution.  Plastic especially.  It takes energy to produce plastics.  That energy isn’t always clean or renewable.  After you’ve used it, what happens?  It has been well documented that plastics take a long time to degrade.  But they do degrade.  And when plastics degrade naturally over time, they release a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  That’s if they degrade naturally.  If we speed the process by burning them, it’s a trainwreck.   

We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly.  We need millions of people doing it imperfectly

When we recycle plastics… well, first off, the thing about recycling plastic is, you can’t keep on doing it forever.  Every time you recycle plastic, it gets progressively softer and weaker.  Even the highest quality, hardest plastic can only go through the process 2 or 3 times until it becomes so soft, it’s practically unusable.  Then… you’re back to letting it degrade or burning it.  Meanwhile, even while recycling is still viable, every round uses energy.  Which isn’t always clean or renewable… 

Having said all that, I want to be 100% clear, I am not fundamentally anti-plastic.  Used responsibly, plastic is an awesome substance.  We have some plastic containers at home that are 30 and even 40 years old.  We sell plastic containers in our bulk refillery, right alongside the glass and steel.  They’re inexpensive, lightweight, and versatile.  Pretty much any substance that’s durable is good for the planet.  It’s the use-it-once-and-throw-it-away stuff that we should worry about.   

Consumer-Facing Waste vs. Waste in the Supply Chain 

We can all feel good about removing plastics from the waste stream.  About recycling metals instead of trashing them.  About sending food waste to the back yard to compost – to enrich the soil and grow more food.  About sending industrially compostable bioplastics to a responsible composing facility.  About avoiding styrofoam and other unnecessary “one-and-done” materials 

But – that’s all after we’re done using the stuff.  What about before we get it in the first place? 

Here’s a story: I used to think glass was better than plastic.  Until I saw some of these companies packing their glass in oceans of styrofoam for shipment.  Not everyone does it.  But some do.  I realized that my original insistence on glass, while not necessarily wrong, may have been shortsighted, or incomplete.  Now that I see the big(ger) picture, I have a more nuanced view.   

I’ve even seen ostensible health food stores open quart bottles of liquid soap, and pour them into 5-gallon pump dispensers as “zero waste” bulk.   

Unfortunately, most of us are ill-equipped to see deep into the supply chain.   

We can, however, always try to buy local, and seasonal, and select responsible packaging.  One of the best, most consistent ways to reduce waste is to buy organic.  Here it is in all capital letters: BUY ORGANIC.  It doesn’t necessarily mean less plastic, or less food miles.  But it does mean less toxic waste in the environment.   

Which Brings Us Back to the Refillery: a Stepping Stone: a Means to an End.   

If you think of the Refillery as the end goal of sustainability, it falls short.  But if you think of it as a stepping stone, now we’re talking. 

If we can show this works – that it’s viable as a business – it’s going to give the next store owner (or venture capitalist, or private equity fund, or whatever) the confidence they need to do it, too.   

If you get a half-dozen refilleries in a region, wholesale distributors will adapt to start supplying the stuff in earnest.  Farmers and farm cooperatives will start to adapt to the new distribution model.  Packagers and processors will adapt.   

(What’s next?  Vitamins in bulk?  Milk dispensors that meet health code?  A viable system to exchange and sanitize standardized containers for takeout?) 

Once wholesale distribution takes it on, now we’re starting to talk seriously about logistics and infrastructure – about the development of not just a mission or a vision, a movement or a trend, but a viable industry.  The path to sustainability will have been paved.  That’s when we start to see the Wal-Marts and Costcos of the world join in (just like they’ve joined in on organics) not because anyone has given them an imagination transplant, but because the way to profitability will have been paved for them. But you and by us.   

That’s when Debra’s Refillery stops being special.  It becomes just another store, selling what everyone sells.  And that’s when we all win.