The Waste Less Shop: an antidote to plastic pollution in Manhattan Beach
by Mark McDermott
Stephanie Cochrane’s head was in the clouds. She was alone, backpacking north through the Sagarmāthā Valley in Nepal, on a 13-day trek to the Mount Everest Base Camp, and at the very beginning of a three-month journey through nine of the wildest and most beautiful countries on Earth.
She’d flown in the previous day to the small airport outside the mountain village of Lukla. She’d begun her trek that morning, accompanied by a small hiking party led by a Sherpa guide. They departed into the wild; there are no roads or vehicles between Lukla and Everest. The first day of the trek would be the least strenuous, five miles along the rollicking Dudh Kosi, described by National Geographic as “the relentless river of Everest,” the highest navigable whitewater on the planet. The Sagarmāthā Valley itself climbs from 9,300 ft. at Lukla to 17,593 ft. at the Everest Base Camp; its name comes from the Nepali word sagar, “sky,” and māthā, meaning “head.”
Cochrane thus hiked into the village of Phakding in an elevated state of mind. Colors seemed more vibrant; even the act of breathing felt somehow purer and more nourishing. She was 25 years old and had never felt more alive. On the outskirts of the village, ancient Nepalese scriptures were carved onto rocks. Old wild wisdom seemed everywhere present.
She walked down to the banks of Dudh Kosi and marveled at the strength of its currents, which flowed directly from the glaciers of the Himalayas. “The energetic power of such pure, untouched water running at such a high speed was so overwhelmingly cleansing that I began to cry,” she later wrote in her journal. Cochrane then decided to take a short hike alone. She wandered uphill, exuberant in her solitude.
And then she saw it. Behind a grove of trees, clearly placed there to obscure its presence from trekkers, was a pile of trash. The human detritus included Coca-Cola bottles, trash bags, candy wrappers, toilet paper, and water bottles.
In an instant, Cochrane felt as if she’d fallen back to a more humdrum earth, one in which the human species so dominated that even here in a place wild beyond imagining it had left the imprint of its all-consuming waste.
“The devastation of our footprint on our planet hit me pretty hard,” Cochrane recalled. “I was so overwhelmed with the most beautiful scenery I’d seen in my life that seeing all of our trash there affected me emotionally. The Sagarmāthā Valley is a sacred valley, home to some of the oldest religious traditions, highest peaks on the planet, and some of the rarest species of animals on Earth; yet our waste has somehow crept its way into a place I had dreamt as nirvana.”
Something inside of her clicked, permanently.
“I had just experienced so much pure power from Mother Earth that seeing what we were doing to her in that exact moment afterward changed my life,” Cochrane said.
The rest of the trek would likewise be life-changing. Cochrane grew up in a mountain valley, in Winnemucca, Nevada, tucked in between the peaks of the Santa Rosa Range, and has traveled to 30 countries, mostly in order to climb mountains. She would later summit Kenya’s Mt. Kilimanjaro on another solo journey, but nothing she saw before or after would ever compare to the sheer splendor of the Himalayas. On October 25, 2016, she would reach Everest Base Camp; she would return to the United States afterward forever altered, not only by the wild beauty but by the realization that our wasteful ways leave no place untouched.
Last week, on October 25, on Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach, Cochrane did something that not only represented how the Himalaya experience had altered her but that she hopes incrementally changes a few other lives. She opened the Waste Less Shop, the South Bay’s first store offering products that can help transform any home to a zero waste-producing household. The shop is a direct result of her experience in Nepal, as well as in other less developed countries she has visited where waste disposal is not hidden.
“That really impacted me and opened my eyes — being in those countries and seeing how much waste is just everywhere because people are just trying to survive,” Cochrane said. “Here we do a pretty good job; the street-sweepers come and we kind of mask it, and hide it, but it’s still there. Whereas in other countries they are not masking it, so it’s more in your face.”
The average American consumer produces about 4.6 pounds of trash every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning each of us produces on average 1,679 pounds of waste per year and 6,351 pounds per family. Recycling, though helpful, isn’t enough; about a quarter of our trash is diverted by recycling, not enough to stymy the flow of trash into already at-capacity landfills or, worse, directly into our environment. Last year, Heal the Bay volunteers picked up 59,600 pounds of trash in LA County in just three hours during its annual Coastal Clean-up Day; statewide, volunteers picked up 839,629 pounds of trash. These numbers are minuscule compared to the trash that ends up in the ocean. A 2015 study published in the journal Science estimated 19 billion pounds of trash, most of it plastic, is dumped in the world’s oceans every year. A study by the nonprofit Algalita Foundation found that, by weight, there was six times more plastic than phytoplankton and 50 times more plastic than zooplankton in our oceans. All totaled, 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris are already in the oceans; 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. The upshot is that plastic ends up on all our water; a study last year revealed that 83 percent of the world’s drinking water is contaminated, while 93 percent of bottled water contains some plastic. The Plastic Disclosure Project estimates that 33 percent of plastic manufactured worldwide is used once, then discarded; 85 percent of the world’s plastic is not recycled.
After Nepal, Cochrane decided to get out of this destructive cycle of waste in her own household. She grew up on a small family farm, so she already possessed both an inherent closeness to nature and a stubborn utilitarian streak. Now she put both qualities in action.
“I think the seed was there, but then I was like, how does this impact my life?” Cochrane recalled. “I was just reducing my waste on a personal level. I looked at my house and started thinking of better alternatives for things. One of the first things I did was start getting rid of paper towels in my house. I just started taking baby steps, and showing my friends how they can reduce waste, and I was also learning that it was saving me a lot of money.”
An example was laundry detergent. Cochrane, who at the time worked full-time as a dental hygienist and still lived in Nevada, bought an additive-free laundry paste bar that dissolved into water to make detergent. After she started using it, she monitored how much she used and how much it cost and was shocked to discover she was saving money.
“I looked up the price point, the bar versus Tide, per ounce,” Cochrane said. “My bar dissolves into four cents a load, and Tide is 28 cents a load, so you can do more than five years of laundry in one year of Tide. And there is no plastic package, and it’s made from five main ingredients that are completely cruelty-free, and safer if you have sensitive skin. It works well, that’s the thing — I had some gym clothes that never really got fully clean that were white, and it all came out white. I was like, ‘What is this?’ That excited me.”
Her experiments continued. She discovered reusable facial rounds to replace the single-use makeup removal wipes made by Neutragena that she’d used for years. Those were $5 a pack and came with 25 individual wipes; she’d use one every night, more when she traveled, so the cost to her budget was at least $60 a year. The reusable rounds cost $26, but lasted years.
“I was realizing not only do these products reduce plastic waste, but they are also saving me money,” Cochrane said. “Which is great, but people just don’t know about it…We are all trying to do our best. None of us want to be polluting the Earth, but we are just left to the options that are there when you go to the big box stores. You get what you know. I’m trying to change that.”
Shortly after Nepal, Cochrane started dating a man from Manhattan Beach, Chris Margaronis, who she’d met a few years earlier. As their relationship deepened, she found herself doing something she never envisioned for herself — moving to Southern California, to the El Porto area of Manhattan Beach. Shortly after arriving, she waste-proofed her and Margaronis’ home.
“We were living together, and I was really reducing the waste in the house, and making almond milk from scratch,” she said. “I calculated the amount of time it took for me to make a batch of almond milk, versus the amount of time it took for me to drive to the store and back, and it was less. So people have the excuse that there’s not enough time, but really it’s just a matter of how you are prioritizing your time and how you look at things. Because if you really evaluate it, a lot of these things can save you time. Like I’ll make deodorant in big bulk batches and have deodorant for a year, and it costs $2 a jar, and it’s the same ingredient as Schmidts, which costs $10 a stick. Things like that can save you money and time.”
Soon thereafter, she launched an online store, and then began taking her products to local festivals, such as the Manhattan Beach Hometown Fair and Fiesta Hermosa. The response was so overwhelmingly positive she began to think about what should come next. She still worked as a dental hygienist, and she loved her work, but she had a feeling there was something else she was meant to be doing. It began to occur to her that it was time to set up shop.
“A lot of people were telling me that they’d been driving to other areas for these products,” she said. “So that kind of put the urgency in me to get it started in the South Bay.”
The Waste Less Shop is a small, two-room store tucked away in the North Manhattan Beach business district, just a few blocks from where Cochrane lives. One room contains various and sundry kitchen, household, and personal hygiene products, such as bamboo toothbrushes, biodegradable dental floss made of natural silk, portable bamboo flatware (for avoiding plastic while eating out), recyclable candles made out of hand-poured coconut wax (made by the locally based brother and sister candlemaker company, Kin), laundry paste, reusable menstrual pads, an old school metal “safety razor” made by a company called Albatross which offers a blade recycling program, reusable snack bags made out of silicon that are actually multi-use (you can microwave, bake, boil, or even sous vide food in them), and jars of “Simply Sooney” organic vegan fluoride-free tooth powders.
The dental products, in particular, mean a lot to Cochrane.
“As a dental hygienist, everything from Crest to Colgate comes in plastic tubes,” Cochrane said. “People think about a toothbrush and plastic is the first thing that comes to mind, but people don’t think about floss. Floss is actually plastic…so we have this biodegradable floss that is just fantastic. You can put it in the compost, and it comes in a glass vile that you can refill. So it’s just going back to how things used to be.”
The entire shop feels somehow like things used to be, like a little general store in a small Nevada frontier town in the Old West, but reimagined as a living-lightly-upon-the-Earth common sense boutique.
“We created convenience, or so we thought, but convenience actually turned into this massive snowball effect that brings ruin to a lot of things,” Cochrane said. “We are learning that actually slowing things down and doing things the way we used to do them is better, and more fulfilling, too.”
“There is way too much go, go, go. Where I grew up, to go to the dentist or go shopping at WalMart we had to drive 2.5 hours. You had to do everything with intention, and you had to prepare for things. We shared the meat from our farm with the other family farms, and everybody helped each other. There was a purpose for everything.”
The second room in the Waste Less Shop is the heart of the operation. It’s called “the refill room” and contains dozens of containers filled with everything from household cleaners to sulfate-free shampoos. The room includes a bin where people can donate containers, or you can purchase glass jars, but the point is every product in the room is both ecologically produced and enables consumers to consume a whole lot less plastic.
“My whole issues is with the packaging,” Cochrane said. “You go look for an eco-friendly laundry detergent, and you read the label and it’s like, okay, this doesn’t look too bad. But it’s still in a plastic container, or in cardboard or paper ones lined with plastic so they look like they are better but no one disposes of them properly. This is kind of taking the good stuff from the inside out and leaving the bad stuff on the outside.”
Business has been brisk since the shop opened two weeks ago. “Thank you for being here,” a customer told Cochrane as she spoke to a reporter. Allie Bussjaeger, a sustainability consultant who is also a member of the Manhattan Beach Sustainability Task Force, said the Waste Less Shop is exactly what was lacking locally. She noted that the city is at the environmental forefront for its aggressiveness in banning plastics — including a plastic bag ban that became a national model, and more recently bans on plastic straws and polystyrene to-go containers — but the Waste Less Shop takes this movement into households.
“Our city is such a champion of sustainability,” Bussjaeger said. “We are a leader in California, which makes us a leader in the United States…I’m so glad, because now with Stephanie’s shop, Manhattan Beach now has another step to take.”
Bussjaeger also helps run the recycling program at California State University Long Beach. She said finding markets for recyclable waste has grown increasingly difficult.
“We are having such a hard time finding places to send some of our plastics, because of our relationship at the national level with China,” she said.
Lisa Ryder, who runs the local program certifying businesses for the California Green Business Network and also consults with Waste Management, said that sometimes recycling can actually have a detrimental effect insofar as it encourages more consumption.
“Recycling has definitely got to be part of what we do, but it can make it feel okay to over-consume,” Ryder said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got four recycling bins, I’m doing my part.’ Okay, but those use massive resources, and that is not what trying to live an environmentally conscious life is about — really just to keep over-consuming.”
Ryder said that even as China buys less of our recyclable waste, other less-developed countries continue to buy it and then use un-ecologically minded ways to dispose of it.
“The bigger issue is none of the bigger companies are using rycycled material in their products,” Ryder said. “So we are doing well with recycling, but if we are not making things from the material, it’s all for naught.”
“Coca Cola produces a billion bottles a year,” she said. “A billion. Just think: that’s one company. So multiply that. There’s just so much being produced it’s difficult to process it.”
The surest and greenest way, Ryder said, is represented by stores like the Waste Less Shop. She cited the three R’s — refuse, reuse, and recycle — and said the first two represent a less waste-ridden future: refuse to buy things that end up as waste (“Things like bring your own cups…just don’t create waste”) and find ways to reuse materials within your own household.
“Reuse is easy now, like this shop,” Ryder said.
Cochrane said a funny thing happens once you begin to be more conscious of waste.
“Once you start seeing waste, you can’t unsee it,” she said. “Sometimes if I want a product from somewhere I literally just can’t do it because I know what happens with the packaging. If I really want a coffee but I don’t have my mug, I’m not going to have coffee that day. I just can’t do it anymore…Once you see it, and really start to think about it, it changes you.”
The Waste Less Shop is at 3515 Highland Avenue, Manhattan Beach. See TheWasteLessShop.com for more information.