ST. PETERSBURG — Reusable straws might just be the gateway.
The Sunshine City's plastic straw ban gave hope to a trio of conscious local shop owners. It made them believe there are consumers just waiting for a less wasteful way to sip their iced coffees, that want self-care and household cleaning products to match their environmentally friendly lifestyles.
Plastic? No thank you.
Within the last few months, the three St. Pete entrepreneurs have set up shops that are anti-packaging and pro all-natural ingredients: Kenwood's Organic Produce, Sans Market and the Refillery
Embracing what is often called the zero-waste movement, these new stores cater to those trying to cut down on their plastic consumption. Even the big retailers are paying attention, pledging their own measures to cut down on package waste over the next five to 10 years. But this latest wave of small retailers would like to see most packaging gone altogether.
"I knew there was a demand for it," said Refillery owner Monica Leonard of her new store. "You can save big money and save packaging from the landfill."
Leonard's store has vats of powder and liquid laundry detergent, jugs of scented vinegar all-purpose cleaner, shampoo pumps and jars of essential oils. Shoppers can buy reusable glass containers in store or bring their own from home to fill up and pay per ounce.
Her popular orange and basil all-purpose cleaner is 25 cents an ounce. About 4 ounces of the concentrated vinegar solution mixed with equal parts water beats out name-brand cleaners, Leonard said. Natural powder detergents, Leonard's specialty, are 15 cents per ounce.
"We’ve certainly seen an uptick in new retail stores going low-waste or even zero-waste," said Florida Retail Federation spokesman James Miller. "This is a transformational shift among the retail community with hundreds of millions of dollars being put into everything from recycling to finding alternative ways to provide the same level of service but with a smaller carbon footprint."
Leonard's low-waste journey started as a mission to keep her family from the harsh chemicals found in mainstream cleaning products. The former pediatric nurse named her burgeoning detergent company Molly's Suds after her late daughter, who was stillborn.
"I wanted to save my family," she said. "So, I went back to the basics."
The more Leonard learned about toxic chemicals and microplastics getting into the food system after their disposal, the more she wanted to stop using plastics in everyday life. She swapped plastic cling-wrap for beeswax paper and sandwich baggies for cloth snack bags.
While Molly's Suds is Leonard’s core business, she created the Refillery storefront as part of her new warehouse on 30th Avenue N and Tyrone Boulevard.
In addition to a do-it-yourself station filled with the ingredients to make natural deodorants and facial cleansers, Leonard also stocks low-waste essentials: Cloth cotton rounds to remove makeup, bamboo toothbrushes and, of course, steel and glass straws.
They're the kind of items Eniko Olah began selling at her Saturday Morning Market and Indie Flea market pop-up shops last year. Now, Olah has her own store on the top floor of the Baum Market downtown, where she sells her staples and then some. She named the store Sans Market.
"Without plastic, without packaging, without chemicals," she said.
She has a refill station with shampoo, hand soap and even sunscreen. Instagram-worthy jars and spray bottles are on sale for a few dollars. She sells portable kits of bamboo cutlery to replace plastic forks or spoons, cotton "unpaper" towels, shampoo and shaving bars, all-metal razors and even plastic-free body glitter.
For 12 years, Olah worked in marketing for the type of companies she now encourages clients to avoid: Procter and Gamble and Kimberly Clark, which manufacture several household cleaning and paper products.
"I was trying to change them from the inside," she said.
A year ago, she decided to lead the change she wanted to see with her own business. She moved from Wisconsin back to Tampa Bay, where her family lives, to start the market. Three years ago, Olah got stricter in cutting back on her personal waste. It was around the time some zero-wasters started getting popular online, showing off how little waste they produced in a year by carrying it around in a mason jar. Olah worries that kind of mindset can create a barrier for those just starting out.
"The goal isn't to judge people and get them to put their waste in a mason jar," Olah said. "It's education."
None of the shop owners said they're completely waste-free. It's difficult, especially when it comes to getting enough food to feed their families.
In October 2018, Marcile Powers and her husband, Keevy McAlavy, put up a Kickstarter fundraising page to solicit local support for Kenwood's Organic Produce, and raised about $3,500 for the low-waste market. They had a months-long soft opening as they sorted out farm relationships and a glass jar deposit program for prepared foods.
The modest shop near the intersection of Fifth Avenue N and U.S. 19 opened officially in March. The store’s shelves are now full of $1 peaches, squash and zucchinis, $4 cartons of blueberries and $1.50 bell peppers.
The couple stocks whatever is in season, often driving to nearby farms to pick up the loads themselves. But avoiding packaging doesn't always work out perfectly. One farm first sent loose potatoes in a box, Powers said. The next order, the same farm sent the potatoes bagged per pound.
"Wholesalers are not totally ready yet," Powers said.
The big suppliers are built around leading retailers that want packaging because it streamlines delivery and shelving and can delay spoiling. Industry leaders need to start demanding changes so the suppliers follow suit, Powers said.
Olah said customer demands affect those decisions, too. She cited Trader Joe's recent packaging changes after a Greenpeace petition against big retailers use of plastics surpassed 100,000 signatures late last year. Trader Joe's chain of 500 stores started phasing out polystyrene meat trays and single-use plastic produce bags.
Aldi pledged last month its packaging would be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, which echoes promises Walmart made in February.
"I hope it's not just green-washing," Olah said. "If they do start making the push, I hope they do it in the right way."
The mood is shifting across the state. Gainesville has a Life Unplastic shop and the village of Tequesta in South Florida has a One World Zero Waste store. Bulk Nation, which has several Tampa Bay locations, has a zero-waste program that allows shoppers to fill up their own jars with flour, nuts and dried fruit.
Tampa Bay's low-waste stores are so far clustered in St. Petersburg. Tampa doesn't appear to have its own similar stores — yet.
The ladies behind St. Pete's latest eco-shops say it's just a matter of time.
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @sara_dinatale.