In 2018, a San Francisco Chronicle article by Jemima Kiss included shocking pictures of plastic pollution and its harmful effects on marine animals. This article caught the eye of Laura Porter, who was an accountant at the time. Porter said, “The pictures had shown broken pieces of plastic and the animals that had died whose stomachs were filled with plastic bits in it. I just left that article sitting on my kitchen counter for a while and I thought, ‘I don’t know why, but this is really striking a chord with me.’ And so I stared at it for probably four days in the kitchen, walking by it over and over, and I thought, ‘Something’s gotta give.’”
Motivated to make a change in the environment, she remembers thinking, “I have a family of four. There’s no chance I’m gonna get to zero-waste, but let’s give it a shot just for one week. I was really disappointed to walk out of that grocery store with a dozen eggs, a baguette, and a couple things of fresh produce. And that was all I could find. That was the trip where I realized that we don’t have a choice about a lot of plastics in our lives, and that even if you try to avoid it, you really couldn’t. And from that point, it was a challenge of, ‘How can I get this without plastic? Where can I get this without plastic?’”
Plastic permeates people’s lives. Manufacturers use it in a range of goods, from personal care to food packaging, which results in an influx of excess waste. According to National Geographic, 91% of plastics don’t actually get recycled.
Porter said, “I was already using a reusable water bottle, but where can I buy groceries without plastic? Where can I get my deodorant without plastic? Fast forward a couple of years: I was buying things from 10 different websites on subscriptions to get all my personal care, going to three different grocery stores a week to get bulk goods. I thought, ‘This is way too much work. Nobody’s going to do this. There has to be a place where people can go and get all of their staples without having to cause so much pollution.’”
This one-week challenge soon expanded into a mission to share zero-waste products. Porter shares, “I started with selling personal care stuff like aluminum bottles of shampoo and bamboo toothbrushes out at farmer’s markets, and it just grew from there.”
Serving a broad customer base, Porter notes that it is the choice of which bulk goods to import to the store is important. Porter said, “For bulk foods and spices, we work with distributors who can help get most things. We do try to go as organic as possible, but organic might be significantly more expensive, so we try different price points for different budgets. We try to get the most common foods, the most common staples, and some special things that customers ask for. We’re always listening for suggestions. But in terms of how we choose cleaning products and personal care, it’s a lot of customer suggestions and trial and error. I don’t want to put anything in the store that my team and I haven’t researched and looked at the ingredients for, because nobody wants to try a new product and get it home just to be disappointed.”
Byrd’s Filling Station buys in bulk so that customers can bring in containers to refill. However, finding a brand that is willing to offer products in bulk is sometimes a struggle. Porter said, “The biggest challenge is finding people who make the products and selling them in a bulk quantity to refilling stores. If you look at a lot of the major brands, some of the biggest polluters in the world—like Coke, Nestle, and Proctor and Gamble—they’re not willing to sell bulk products. There are a number of brands that I call every six to nine months and say, ‘Hey, will you sell bulk now?’ And usually I get a no.”
Despite the challenges, Porter and her team have been able to offer many unexpected goods in zero-waste form. ”A lot of people are surprised to find plastic-free cosmetics and perfume. Perfume is one that I think gets overlooked because the containers are small, but we can refill these containers and sell them by weight. A really popular one that people are curious about is toothpaste tablets. People come in and they’ll buy the little four-pack sample of toothpaste tablets, and very frequently we’ll see them in the seven-day span after they bought the samples to stock up on a full supply of them,” Porter shared. An aisle over from the bulk detergents and soaps are shelves stocked with zero-waste cosmetics and skincare products. Porter said, “One of my favorite products is the Dew Liquid Lift serum. It’s a face serum that has no packaging. They’ve taken all the water out of it, so you just pick it up and rub it on your skin. It is fabulous for your skin because it’s moisturizing and contains all sorts of antioxidants.”
Aside from personal care items, Byrd’s offers a vast range of fresh produce, dry goods, spices, and even freshly-ground peanut butter. “The most popular item is probably the peanuts that customers can grind themselves in store for fresh peanut butter, or the coffees. We have one customer who comes in and she buys three pounds of peanuts at a time! I also love all of the coffees from Jeremiah’s Pick, and we provide them in bulk.”
Porter walked over to the wall of spices and picked out a particular jar. She said, “An item that flies under everybody’s radar is this applewood-smoked spice salt. It makes everything taste like it just came off of the campfire. Put it on roasted vegetables, pizza, and pasta. When customers see the spices and the teas, they’re shocked at what a good deal it is, because you can save significant amounts of money over buying individual glass jars in the grocery stores.”
As Byrd’s Filling Station’s one-year anniversary approaches, Porter notes the important contributions the store has made to San Mateo County’s environment. “We have a little counter on our register that counts up how many things we sell by weight, which would be the amount of single-use plastics that we’ve eliminated just on the whole food items: 24,000 items since we opened last May! But that number does not include anything that’s not sold by weight. So let’s say somebody comes over and they buy makeup, deodorant, or toothpaste that’s packaged in aluminum. That’s not counted in the 24,000. I’m gonna guess the number is probably closer to 50,000.”
April is also Earth Month, and Byrd’s Filling Station will be hosting a special public event on April 22nd for Earth Day. Porter explained, “We’ll have free samples, free coffee, and we’re gonna be doing double punches on the VIP cards that we have. We’ve also got a number of giveaways for Earth Month with personal care items and cosmetics.”
Find more information on the event and Byrd’s Filling Station here. The store is located at 219 South San Mateo Drive in San Mateo.