Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Zero Waste Company aims to change the way you buy – and live – without plastic

Studies suggest that products that come in reusable packaging, rather than rigid plastic containers, can cut down on production and consumption

When I heard about a company calling itself Zero Waste, I was intrigued. Could it really be true?

Zero Waste is a Brooklyn-based business with a “mission to make sustainability popular and acceptable”. Started by Ethan Lewis, Caroline Albright and Ian McCabe, the company launches products that “support consumers’ desire to live sustainably”.

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Some Zero Waste products look and feel similar to packaging found on the shelf, but with fewer materials and less packaging. And its Zero Reusable Case product, for example, uses things such as metal, copper, natural rubber and glass.

“Our goal is to redesign the way consumers purchase everyday products and replace the products they currently use,” says Lewis.

Today Zero Waste sells a variety of products, including reusable travel pots and pans, ice, cereal, tea, toothbrushes, cleaning and grooming products, cleaning and beauty products, and clothing. In addition to also helping consumers with their personal brands, the company says it is collaborating with local community centers and community gardens on local community gardens and micro-farms that will produce Zero Waste produce for home delivery.

Lewis founded Zero Waste in 2009 with friends who previously worked for Postmates, a food delivery service. But instead of the previous clientele, Zero Waste’s first few items were designed to appeal to local community organizations, and moved slowly.

“It took us two years to sell our first product and six months to sell our last one,” says Lewis. “After failing to scale and running low on cash, we decided to fold.”

The project then received a loan from Brooklyn Bridge Ventures to kickstart new venture. Today, it’s in more than 120 stores across the US, including Anthropologie, Harry & David, Whole Foods, Whole Foods Market, Urban Outfitters, and Target. The company has even been featured on the front page of The New York Times, for its sustainably made and compostable cleaning products, according to Lewis.

When it comes to sustainability, Zero Waste keeps itself accountable with extensive customer and employee surveys to help identify needs and feedback. It’s also part of the U Collective Network, an on-campus sustainability initiative at the New School in New York, and in April it will launch its first e-commerce store.

So how sustainable is Zero Waste? Fewer packaging materials means its products have a reduced carbon footprint. Yet the company points out that just using less packaging does not necessarily make the product better. “Each product from Zero Waste has been engineered in a way that it delivers an environmental impact benefit,” says Lewis.

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But there are other products that call to mind products made by the same company. For example, Zero Waste’s Spic and Span Crate case, a product designed to accompany ice cream, has a “spaghetti strap” that closely resembles the squeeze hoses of some frozen yogurts. The company says it made changes to other elements of the crate that make it less recognizable.

This doesn’t mean Zero Waste is attempting to cater to everybody. The company needs to be able to scale, according to Lewis. In terms of scale, the company aims to exceed 50,000 on-hand cases in 2018. Currently, Zero Waste sells only consumer products, but it’s also working with health and wellness companies in its carton division, which collects food waste and converts it into compostable material. In the beginning, the company’s business was local to only New York, but it hopes to expand into other locations.

Despite its mission, Zero Waste has received criticism for relying too heavily on recycled plastic, particularly with its plastic resealable travel pots and pans. Lewis says this depends on the conditions on a given trip. Also, there are many kitchen compost bins that reuse plastic and it’s not a commonality. Plus, Waste Management has been collecting and sorting food waste for at least two decades and it’s not yet obsolete, Lewis says.

• Follow Guardian Sustainable Business on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to join the discussion, and view our free report Why plastic is bad for the environment: the case for smarter, biodegradable packaging

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