Zero waste heroes

One sustainably minded couple’s quest to open a zero-waste grocery store

Courtesy of Lyndsey Manderson

The tortilla chips had to go.

It wasn’t a matter of cutting calories or pinching pennies for the Manderson family, rather the salty snack was beginning to interfere with a different kind of diet — a plastic diet.

Lyndsey and Jesse Manderson couldn’t find an alternative for the crinkly, plastic bag that enveloped one of their favorite snacks. Eventually, they concluded it was time to part ways with the processed food.

Such plastic purging is slowly catching on in North America as awareness about plastic pollution and negative health effects grows. But for many practitioners, divesting their lifestyles of plastic waste can be challenging — and inconvenient. The Mandersons hope to change that. Using their firsthand knowledge of the daily struggles associated with living plastic-free, the Mandersons plan to open a zero-waste grocery store in Denver within the next year.

The Mandersons say ZERO market will offer nontoxic, preservativefree groceries, organic and locally grown produce, cruelty-free body care and eco-friendly household products — all in bulk and without disposable packaging.

Such zero-waste markets, which employ the bring-your-own-container concept of shopping, aren’t entirely a new idea — there’s the Austinbased in.gredients and Germany’s Original Unverpackt just opened in Berlin this past summer. In addition, many farmers’ markets, like Boulder County’s, are zero waste in their practices. But permanent, year-round stores are few and far between.

For Lyndsey and Jesse, their journey of paring down plastic to the point where they can fit eight months’ worth of trash into an oversized mason jar has taken years.

“The first thing we did was get rid of all the trash cans in our house except for the kitchen,” recalls Lyndsey. “If we were in the bathroom and we had to throw something away, we had to think [about it] and how we could change next week.”

The family also kept a small pad of paper beside the garbage can where they would record any and all refuse deposits. At the end of the week, they would comb through the list to see where they could improve.

“There’s no way we could have just done everything in the first week,” Lyndsey says. “It’s just way too overwhelming; we have two kids, fulltime jobs and a life to live.”

Like Lyndsey and Jesse, Mike SanClements attempted to live without plastic. SanClements is a scientist at the National Ecological Observatory Network at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and author of the book Plastic Purge, which details the dangers plastics pose to human health, his own difficulties living a plastic-free life and ways others can purge plastic from their lives.

“If the markets themselves can make it more convenient and easier for the consumer to avoid plastic, that’s a huge step,” he says.

The plastic industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States, generating more than $380 billion annually in global shipments and employing close to 900,000 workers. For many small businesses, it’s nearly impossible to work around.

But big bulk stores like Costco have managed to cut packaging on their products and passed on the discounts to the customer. That offers hope to people like SanClements.

“The potential for corporations to save money on packaging is a way to get them to buy into reducing packaging,” he says.

In the meantime, it can be difficult to find zero-waste suppliers, says Lyndsey, because there isn’t a huge demand for it. But Coloradan consumers are certainly taking notice of the Mandersons’ business venture. In addition to their own savings, the couple launched an Indiegogo campaign that has already amassed over $20,000 in financial support for ZERO market.

SanClements, who has been studying plastic for years, believes people are finally taking notice of the material’s harmful effects, thanks to increased media attention on issues like microbeads entering the water system and even the search for Malaysia Airlines 370, which highlighted the amount of plastic trash cluttering the ocean.

When it comes to microbeads, the tiny plastic pellets found in exfoliants are specifically designed to pass through water filtration systems, ending up in the bellies of fish and working their way through the food chain. In 2014, Illinois became the first American state to ban cosmetics containing microbeads.

“Plastic has endocrine disruptors which can cause changes in the hormonal function of our bodies,” SanClements explains. “It’s been linked to all sorts of things ranging from birth defects and developmental disorders to obesity to even some cancers.”

Many of the chemicals found in plastic are unregulated, and while most people are now aware of the dangers of BPA, even BPA-free plastic has been found to pose similar risks.

“Plastic is considered by many health professionals to be one of the biggest experiments ever done on humankind,” says Jesse.

It makes sense, then, that the Mandersons would turn to tooth powder instead of toothpaste; that they would use bars of shampoo instead of pouring the liquid from clunky, persisting plastic bottles; and that they plan to stock all the fixings for DIY sunscreen, deodorant and moisturizer at their Denver store, in addition to waste-free food.

But Jesse notes it’s important to remember there aren’t zero-waste alternatives to everything — sometimes when you get down to the bottomline you just have to part ways with a product forever. And sometimes, plastic is a necessary evil.

“We need plastic in our lives. There are reasons for plastics. It’s always going to be out there,” he says. “But as a far as containing our food and water, maybe we should be looking in other directions.”