How to start a circular economy in your hometown

Lavender or lemon laundry powder for refill in glass jar
© Utility Refill and Reuse

Fed up with the disposable culture we all live in, two women from Portland, Oregon, founded a low-waste company to help the entire city cut back on plastic.

When I think of where most of the single-use plastic is lurking in my home, the kitchen and the bathroom are high on the list of notable offenders. I've cut way back on online shopping, buy secondhand when I can, don't purchase meat, and am researching how to compost dog poop in my backyard, but keeping my dishes clean and my sweaters fur-free is tough without dishwashing liquid or lint rollers.

Even though there’s bulk sections in most major grocery stores and a myriad of online retailers selling sustainable products, I would love a zero-waste store in my hometown of New Orleans — an easily accessible place where I can bring my jars and reusable grocery bags to stock up on such staples as dish soap, laundry powder, shampoo, beeswax wraps, and more.

Unfortunately, New Orleans isn't there (yet), but more and more sustainably-minded businesses are popping up around the country. I recently reached out to the founders of Portland's first zero-waste pop-up shop, Utility Refill and Reuse, which is dedicated to promoting the ever-growing concept of zero-waste.

Rebecca Rottman and Nadine Appenbrink were friends before they were business partners — and neither had much experience or interest working in retail. Rottman has a professional background in public policy and health while Appenbrink is an urban planner. "Having worked in the public sector, I’m disenchanted," explained Rottman. "It’s not exactly the place for the social and environmental innovations our society desperately needs. Owning a business provides a greater outlet for creativity and the ability to make change and contribute to our community."

Like many Portlanders, they had taken steps to make their personal lives more sustainable, but felt that the green-minded city was missing something. "We couldn't believe Portland didn't already have a zero-waste shop before us," Rottman says.

So they started their own, as a second job. "It started as a personal journey, looking for clean products that didn't come in plastic. How can we make sustainability a way of life, when it's not how we grew up?" adds Appenbrink.

Like similar low-waste companies, Utility’s mission is to reduce the amount of single-use plastic at the individual level by allowing and encouraging consumers to bring their own containers when purchasing personal and home care products in bulk. Their hope is if enough people can reduce single-use disposable plastics at the grassroots level, they can disrupt the petrochemical industry and help eliminate the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Utility operates as a pop-up retailer and refill shop. Nearly every weekend, Rottman and Appenbrink team up with local businesses to sell their bulk personal and homecare products, reusable containers, and refill products for new and returning customers. "We just ask that your containers be clean and dry," laughs Appenbrink.

The products range from an all-natural laundry powder to a dish soap bar to house-made deodorant to a lint brush made out of beechwood and rubber. Utility's bulk options are brands that they work closely with; for instance, a dish soap bar, made in North Portland, is vegan and biodegradable, so you can take it camping (essential for Portlanders). Another supplier, a woman in Oregon City, formulates a laundry powder for Utility that works especially well with low-water machines.

Just don't let their name intimidate you. Zero-waste is something we all strive for, but it's not practical or realistic for most humans in the modern world. "We're all on a journey," Appenbrink says. "And we want to be as approachable as possible. Utility is an on-ramp to raising awareness about this lifestyle."

Rottman and Appenbrink will personally deliver goods and refills if requested, but there are also online orders and pick-ups at various partner stores in the city, similar to a CSA. One time, they even sold items out of the back of their car when a host store wasn't opened in time. "We want to be as convenient as possible!" joked Appenbrink.

By popping up at small businesses in different neighborhoods on a weekly basis, the women also formed a tight-knit community with other like-minded activists. With their one-year anniversary coming up this April, the company has also branched out into other community engagement activities. Trash is one subject near and dear to their hearts as well. "I'm weird, I love picking up litter in my spare time," Rottman laughs. "It's very therapeutic." Besides the planned litter pick-ups, they're also hosting tree-planting workshops in North Portland.

Though starting a business from scratch while still working a full-time job sounds intimidating for most anyone, the two-person team insisted that there is too much "mystique about starting a small business, that you'll need loads of capital," says Rottman. "And, that wasn't true for us. We just started small, one event at a time. It was very low-risk — which is essentially what pop-ups are."

For now, they're focused on thoughtful growth. You won't see them shipping products, ever, because the carbon footprint of sending their glass containers around the world just doesn't fit with their mission. This summer, they are going to start hosting some DIY classes, like their in-house deodorant and face creams.

Since each product is personally tested by the founders, they are still working on finding a toothpaste and shampoo bar/conditioner that they love. But rest assured, once they've perfected another zero-waste product, it'll be popping up around Portland, too.

How to start a circular economy in your hometown
Fed up with the disposable culture we all live in, two women from Portland, Oregon, founded a low-waste company to help the entire city cut back on plastic.

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