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The Zero Waste Movement: It Starts with One Step

September 13, 2023

The sustainability industry is built around adaptability and innovation. There is a commitment to constantly exploring and inventing new ways to improve efforts in conscious waste reduction within sustainability. Waste reduction has many forms, from utilizing your table scraps to minding your use of plastic products. In a perfect world, there would be zero waste. So, the question becomes less focused on achieving perfection and focusing on everyday choices that can make an impact. More importantly, how to make the right choices that work with what you already have rather than making a giant leap into what you “should be” doing.

From the view of Michigan business owners Shannon Sweetwood and Whitney Wagner of Refill Emporium in St. Clair Shores and Tessa Benziger of Walking Lightly in Ferndale, there is an increase in demand for products and processes that are zero-waste and more sustainable overall. Both businesses are refill stations, two of a current sixteen throughout Michigan.

“The concept of a refill station harkens back to the idea of the milkman. You receive your bottles of milk on a certain day of the week and put the empty bottles outside on another day for the milkman to pick up and reuse,” both Shannon Sweetwood and Whitney Wagner agreed when speaking about their work together. “We wanted to reintroduce the idea of reusing containers that are already available and go a step further by filling them with non-toxic, natural products that won’t harm our water supply through runoff.”

While deeply passionate about environmental work throughout their 28 years of friendship, Shannon and Whitney found their ultimate inspiration through the birth of Whitney’s first child. “That was the moment where we started having more intentional conversations about creating an impact in our community,” they reflected. “We ultimately want to leave this world better than how we found it. More importantly, we wanted to teach our community how to look at what they use – physically touch to clean and sanitize every day – and that those products are key to making a difference for our planet.”

Shannon and Whitney made it part of their mission to create and provide safe, non-toxic, natural products in their store for their community members to utilize. “We started small by making a few cleaning and hygiene products like shampoo and soap. We use the guidelines of the EPA to ensure that they are safe for use,” they explained. “Now, we have multiple products available across cleaning, sanitization, and hygiene in our store and our online shop. The standard we set for our customers is to bring clean, sanitized containers of any size for reuse and refilling. That’s it! We take off the weight of the container itself and weigh the finished product. It’s been amazing to see how many people recognize the simplicity of the process and how frequently customers return.”

Tessa Benziger of Walking Lightly shared a similar sentiment when discussing the success of reusing and refilling. “People are shifting away from convenience and are clearly wanting this model,” she reflected while discussing purchasing power. “There has been a powerful realization through the environmental awareness movement and clean-living initiatives that convenience has a cost beyond the actual dollar. It’s an interesting intersection when working within a capitalistic model. So much of our conditioning is around buying more and buying what’s available. With what we do in our line of work, we’re teaching people to buy smarter. Use what you have and then see how you can replace it with something more effective rather than something better.”

From the beginning, Tessa became increasingly aware of how much plastic was filling her grocery cart each week. She took her first step by bringing her own bags, but then began to notice how all of the packaging was essentially plastic and one-time-use items. She thought there must be a way to take another step to waste reduction. “I wanted to make a place where people could reuse containers they already had in their homes, but I quickly realized that there weren’t many models to which I could refer myself. I also quickly realized that our state didn’t have very many models it could reference when initially getting the business off the ground, which was quite tricky,” she shared. “But the great news is that I was able to help in supporting a standard for the state in a way. Walking Lightly became the second refilling station in Michigan and immediately showed promise for how we move forward together in creating sustainable options.”

Tessa follows the US Plastics Pact, an organization whose mission is to ensure that plastics never become waste. “They have a program that consists of activators and catalysts, which is, respectively, the people who can work on the legislative level and the people who would be considered the boots on the ground. Walking Lightly would be considered a catalyst, encouraging communities to consider their plastic and containers as a resource rather than disposable.”

Both sets of owners had a lot to say about the big movements they support and their responsibility to the greater good. “Sustainability means that we have to consider the social standpoint. Those with less access get hit the hardest, so our future steps together must include actionable steps within everyone’s means. This means making education just as accessible. Our programs, processes, and products can have more of an impact as long as we are making education and outreach a top priority,” Tessa said.

Shannon and Whitney shared a similar sentiment. “The best thing we can do is put our community first, and the trickle effect will take place. As we make our products and programs accessible to our immediate community members, the more they will share with their respective circles and so on,” they said. “We dream of our city implementing a citywide composting program. But as that is not currently available, we can provide that service. We can provide opportunities for waste reduction by encouraging reuse and refilling. We can be the impact.”

All agreed on one key point: no step is too small. Every small choice has an impact, and it can start with your everyday habits. “Here’s a good analogy we like to use. If you are someone who regularly cooks at home and wants to be more environmentally conscious, your solution is not to go out the next day and buy an electric vehicle. What you can do the next day is save your food scraps. Compost your unused food bits. Start right where you work every day and build your way to a bigger step as it fits your means,” Shannon and Whitney offered.

“Get comfortable with your first change before making another one,” Tessa added. “There are so many free and accessible ways to start somewhere with waste reduction. When you’re ready to pick one, sit with that one for a while. Play with it. Adjust up or down as needed. And when you realize it’s now a part of your lifestyle, find other small places where you can do the same thing.”

Refill Emporium and Walking Lightly have online shops you can visit, along with workshops and events they host regularly. You can stay up-to-date on their news and happenings on their social media channels, which are listed on their websites.

At Energy Sciences, we prioritize uplifting the range of the communities we support. We place significant value on what our communities can teach us and how we can better shape our business to support each other. We encourage you to contact us about your organization or an organization you’re passionate about.

Categories: Blog, ES Community, Sustainability