This conversation was from mid-2020 after the COVID pandemic hit the US, and has not been published before. My Zero Waste Store is a retailer of No Tox Life products based in California (Pasadena).
My Zero Waste Store, formerly known as "Ban SUP Refill," provides alternative solutions to single use plastic. Refills, unpacked products, sustainably packed products, and reusable items make this Pasadena-based business stand out.
Store owner Cheryl Auger is creating a meaningful impact by helping others discover ways to reduce the plastic crisis. Learn with me about how this powerhouse develops her innovative business, influences legislation, and helps shape the future of our planet.
It was great to visit your store. (in a beautiful location in Old Town Pasadena next to the Playhouse theatre).
Oh, good. It's going to keep growing. I'm also hoping that we're going to put at least one or two sewing machines so people can rent the sewing machines and do repairs.
Are you thinking of doing classes?
We'll definitely be doing "Make Your Own Lotion." I'd like to grow into deodorant refills and those types of things. We'll be doing a bunch of different things, but the sewing machines will be for people to come in and be able to do their own sewing.
How has the store changed since COVID has started?
Well, you guys know. For sure, we were going to buy liquid products from you guys, and then that dried up. Dr. Bronner and Mrs. Meyers said that they weren't taking any new customers due to COVID. So, it really has limited my ability to get supplies and things for resale. But I think it's working out.
Is it just because their manufacturing capacity can't keep up?
One of them said it was because they wanted to review their processes.
Interesting. I wonder if they're getting worried about lawsuits because of COVID or something like that?
Yeah, or maybe because people in manufacturing still had to be physically there. Maybe they had people with COVID. They wanted to minimize or reduce?
Have you seen in the store that people are not willing to come inside anymore due to COVID?
No. Actually, I think it's a really hard time because of fire, dust in the air, high temperatures, etc. So, that's been a challenge as far as having street traffic. But when people stop by, they're very curious about what the store's about.
Some people are like, "Oh my God, we got our first refill store in Pasadena!" Some people know what it is, and they're super excited. Other people are like, "Oh, what's this?" So then, I go through the whole entire explanation of what we're doing in our mission.
It's kind of cool too. I have a lot of data because of my group that's been working on legislation and ordinances for the last couple of years. People will come in, and they're like, "Oh, I read your sign about how we're exporting our waste to Malaysia." And I'm like, "Yep, it's a sin. It's totally sinful, but that's what we're doing." It's so great to know that my information is informing people.
There was a couple in front of the store reading about plastics numbers three through seven the other day, and the guy was like, "I knew it! Read this; 90% of the plastics have never broken down and are still in existence in some form. They just further break down into massive microplastics. This is terrible!"
So, I can hear and see their rage when some people get the information. Then, also, to be so lucky as to have a letter from the city of Pasadena. I actually have another one I could put up, too. It's confirmation. Yeah, Cheryl Auger could be making that stuff up, but when you have the city of Pasadena saying, "Only put plastics one and two in the recycling bin and everything else in your regular dumpster," it's highly reinforcing.
What do you think about big companies versus small companies? Not that it's a contest, but sometimes it feels like it.
Well, I'd have to say, can you name a big company that you respect and admire and think that their business is doing good? And I'd have to say that, off the top of my head, I can't think of any. It's unconscionable that still, in today's time, we have manufacturers that are allowed in the United States to make products with carcinogens and pesticides. Knowing that rates of autism and other health issues like cancer are increasing so dramatically during our time, we still allow people or companies to make harmful products that we use on our bodies.
A lot of it is just that people are so busy they don't have time to think or review and understand that legislation needs to help us. And I guess that's where small companies come in. I have a customer who came in yesterday. She said, "I will buy anything that is non-toxic, and I prefer that it's a soluble powder."
Wow. So, it sounds like people are slowly becoming more aware.
Yes, and I think fires certainly send a shock to all of us. And the hurricanes, bomb cyclones, smoke, and every other thing that's rapidly descending upon us.
And the people who are trying to deny that at least some part of these problems is not manmade. Because obviously, the weather does change. You can't say the weather will be the same all the time, but the extreme weather is created.
Right. We're seeing so many other things like impacts on crops. We're definitely getting less of a growing season. There are just so many impacts that are obviously the extinction of so many species. It's hard to turn a blind eye to it.
In your personal life, where did your sustainability journey start?
I worked for the Metropolitan Water District. (They operate the water supply to cities in Southern California). I was up at Microsoft with some of my colleagues, looking at their new Windows 10 platforms a couple of years ago. The guy from L.A., D.W.P. (Department of Water and Power), was also there. We were on break, and I walked by and overheard a conversation about how stupid people are because they throw the wrong things in the recycling bins. It's all contaminated, but they're sifting for things that get recycled.
And I was just like, "I don't even know what that's about," because I believed that recycling existed. It was a growing awareness. I started reading the gyre (ocean current) reports about how we were sending all of our waste, specifically plastic, to Asia and poor countries and the conditions we were externalizing. They were using it for cooking and insulation for their homes. Children were playing with it. It was getting into their farms, food, and water. The more I learned, the more concerned I got.
Part of that learning came from the state twin bills, SB 54 and AB 1080, that didn't pass. We know that 23 Assembly members failed to vote on August 31st for these bills. And we also know that many of them had voted in support of these bills in the past but, since then, had taken either one, two, or three contributions from Dart, a Styrofoam manufacturer. Then, they didn't vote on it in the final round.
It's heartbreaking because we've got a problem, and we don't have leaders that are helping us to solve it. Chris Holden and my Assembly member, Mike Gibson, have two of the highest positions and get the most campaign contributions. And like $200,000 of it comes from the fossil fuel industry.
So where do you see the store going? Is this something where you're looking to turn it into a full-time gig for you, or is it like what you would call a side project? What's your overarching idea?
I feel like we're in a fight for our lives right now and that, somehow, we have to get a message across to people that there's a truth out there. The plastic lobbyists don't want you to know the truth, but somehow, I have to impress the truth on you so that we make changes and we create awareness with others. So, it's my core mission.
What would be your piece of advice to somebody who's saying they want to start a retail store during a pandemic?
A couple of people have asked me about whether or not I want to franchise my store, which is quite flattering. Maybe I would consider doing that, but I've told people, "If you want a store and you want some advice, call me or email me." I'm happy because I honestly believe that every walking community should have a refill store within something you can bike to or walk to.
I believe that part of the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is shopping locally, buying locally, and buying unpackaged sustainable goods. I think that's all a part of what is going to help us turn this climate crisis that we're having around and, certainly, the plastic crisis.
Did you see that article from NPR? It was about how the plastic industry has known about the fact that plastic isn't recyclable for 70 years. They did all these things, like creating the chasing arrows to hide it. And they have uncovered files where they learned that these executives had discussed it and talked about how to market around the plastic so that nobody would know that it was not recyclable.
Wow! No, I haven't. I didn't read the article. I saw the headline, and I did watch the Netflix documentary called "Broken." There's one on recycling specifically that was really good.
I talked to one of the managers at Burbank Recycle Plant, and it was amazing. It was back when we were first relaunching our store to have the refills in it. And I was like, "So, I've heard that plastic isn't being recycled. Can you tell me more about that?" She was like, "Yup!"
I was like, "Wow! Okay." She was like, "Yeah, a very, very small percentage of the plastic is recyclable, and the rest is just nobody is buying it." Burbank doesn't actually melt down plastic. They sell it to other people who then recycle it. And she was like, "The market is just gone. Nobody wants it, and it's going to go to landfill."
So, interestingly enough, I gave a talk on Tuesday at Metropolitan Water District (WMD), and 65 people attended. I made a comment about the 14 articles being recycled. But I said, "Local jurisdictions, like Athens (waste management service), will take the clamshells, the number five that the rotisserie chickens come in. So, the deal is, just call around to each company and see what they take so you know exactly what you can recycle."
What ended up happening is one of the MWD employees called up Athens. They said, "Oh. Well, we take everything!" And so then, she starts saying to the group, "Oh, I'm so lucky finding out that this company, which is Athens, takes everything."
I was like, "No, that's not true. They get paid to haul. They're incentivized to take everything because they want the weight of the waste because that's what they're going to get paid for." And so now, Amy Hammond (Manager of Burbank Recycling Plant in California) is going to come speak on November 2nd to our group.
Yeah, shine a little light.
Yeah, that's great. I mean, you were saying what made you start thinking about it was that education about recycling. So, I think somehow, the education about it needs to be on a giant scale.
Yes. Today, I sent an email over to Pasadena City Council like, "You know, we've got to do something with now knowing specifically that we've got 14 items that are recycled statewide." And then, I sent it out to 200 plus people in my group, like, "Take the email, make it your own, send it to your city council, and let's see where we can bring this."
So, with the pandemic and all the single use plastic that's resulting, what do you think needs to be done about it? Is there anything that you've been able to do on your end? What do you think that other people should be doing about it?
I think the misinformation campaign that COVID could be transmitted through surface was damaging, to say the least. I've been taking any opportunity. I've been working, sending letters with Surfrider, Break Free from Plastic, and a couple of other groups that the CDC has not found any surface transmittal. I use every opportunity I have to say that, but the damage has been done.
What do you think about using TerraCycle? Have you been able to delve more into what TerraCycle is actually doing?
I have not, but I am personally against greenhouse gas emissions associated with shipping waste across the country. There's the Ellen MacArthur Plan, which has major attendees like the Mars Candy Company. They have these ridiculous proposals to do things like use high heat thermal exchange to energy. That's how all the little candy wrappers will get collected and managed.
I thought about it one day. So, you have approximately 40 million children trick-or-treating all over the world on October 31st. Now, how exactly do they get those candy wrappers over to Mars' incineration system? And I was like, "They don't. They just don't." It's preposterous to think that that would even work.
We subsidize farming. Why can't we subsidize waste-reducing enterprises?
Right! There are two state bills and the federal bill right now, which is the Break Free from Plastic bill, introduced by Long Beach Congressman Alan Lowenthal. All three of those bills proposed that the manufacturer takes responsibility for what they're making their product and their packaging out of. So, if only one, two, and five can be recycled - and that's the infrastructure we have in place - then that's what manufacturers must use, or they've got to figure out their own plant.
You know how Loop is making custom-branded packaging for products for manufacturers? Then, Loop takes it back, and then they clean it. And then they send it to the manufacturer. My idea was none of this needs to be custom-branded. So basically, everything on the shelf looks the same, except it has a different label that's like a paper label.
The idea is you can go to the store, buy your pre-prepared food, and then go home and eat it. Then, next week, when you're going shopping, you take your dirty container to the store and dump it in their receptacle. It all gets collected. In each major city, there is a dishwashing collection center that collects it, washes it, and sends it. The clean container sits there, sealed, obviously. And then, because all the containers are standard, local manufacturers can buy those containers again.
We were thinking of the same thing. In fact, I was going to try to get a grant to do that locally. We would only focus on coffee shops. So, we like the vessel concept where you drop off clean coffee cups. There are a few places around the city where you could dump it in close proximity to the store. Then, we'd pick them up and clean them.
I did look into using church and public school infrastructures for dishwashing. I was going to go one step further: pick up the waste coffee, which is good for growing mushrooms. So, you have two purposes to go to that coffee store.
The small scale is something somebody can actually start without a ginormous amount of money. That's an interesting point on food waste. Somebody could take that food waste that's in the leftover container that the person dumped at the store in the receptacle. My idea was that the dishwashing facility that's in each city is fully automated. I got the inspiration for this from watching a National Geographic about how the Coca-Cola bottling plants operate in Europe.
They manufacture their own glass bottles for Coca-Cola in Europe, in Spain. People drink their Cokes in the restaurants, and they put the bottle there in a crate. The computer reads each bottle to make sure it's not broken. Then, if they aren't, the crates go to the bottling plant, where the glass gets washed and cleaned. If the glass is broken, then they put it off, and it goes on a recycling conveyor belt. They literally recycle it and make new bottles right there.
Amazing! They probably have laws about recycled content, then.
Maybe. The only way that's possible is because the container is standard. Coca-Cola could never make a giant dishwashing bottle facility if they had thousands of different types of containers.
The major flaw in the Loop idea is it's not standard, and it needs to be to make it. Also, nothing can be custom-branded. No structural container can be custom-branded for a manufacturer. And that's the other thing that Loop is doing, and it doesn't make sense. Emissions-wise, it doesn't make sense that you would brand a container for a specific manufacturer. It needs to be available to whoever can buy it. Anyone.
And my idea was that this 100% needs to be subsidized by governments. I don't see how else it would be viable, at least to get going. But it would also enable even the smallest company to decide to use reusable containers just because they can buy them. And it's easy, right?
Yeah, there's a lot of work to be done. That's for sure. And I should mention that in case anybody lives in Thousand Oaks, they have a plastic ban ordinance on the agenda for the next city council meeting. It looks good. We need more of those. Truthfully, as you know, the city of L.A., L.A. County, and Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council all have bans poised to go.
Besides No Tox Life products, what are some of your favorite products in your store?
Okay, well, that's an easy one. I have just fallen in love with Zip Tops. Zip Tops are silicone cups and containers that are like stashers. So, you can microwave them. You can put them in the oven. You can put them in boiling water and freely put them in the dishwasher. I love the way they look and feel, and they're made up right here in the United States. So, it's reducing the greenhouse gases to get them here. They are made in Austin, Texas.
- Cheryl Auger, owner of My Zero Waste Store