Mala Persaud is a 350 Fairfax member and the owner of Trace—The Zero Waste Store.

The last three Plastic Free Octobers (2018, 2019, 2020) have been turning points. In 2018, I discovered 350 Fairfax. I’ve learned so much (thank you, Helene, Julie, and especially Charlie Forbes), and I’ve made what I think are enduring friendships through this group. In 2019, I stood up at a Plastic Free Forum with Dan Simons, co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group, and told the world that I was starting my own business—a zero waste store right here in Fairfax County.

Last year in 2020, in the backdrop of the pandemic, I built my business. I continued to avoid plastic as much as I could—in fact, even in the depth of the pandemic, my family and I managed to reduce our trash output to half a bag a week. I have to say I avoided plastic as much as I could, so by the time Plastic Free October came around, I didn’t know what else to give up—it had been years since I used a plastic bag, bottle, straw, toothbrush, floss, shampoo bottle, or Ziploc bag. I’d even mostly given up meat, mostly because of the packaging. So I gave up cheese—a staple of my diet, thinking I would starve. A year later, the habit has held, and in addition to saving all that packaging, methane gas, fossil fuels for transit, and more, something else happened.

My cholesterol dropped a whopping 25 points in just six months.

Learning ways to work around and avoid one of my staple foods, particularly at home, led to some excellent food choices that have benefited my health in countless ways. It forced more plant-based eating, which we already know is one of the best things anyone can do to combat climate change. I have since added oat milk and coconut milk to the regular shopping list. I’m not close to being vegan, but I strive for 3 vegan days a week and rarely eat meat. Every little bit helps.

This year, two years since I stood up at the event in Great Falls, I am now the proud owner of Trace—the Zero Waste Store. It’s one of two zero waste stores in the DC area (Mason and Greens opened in Alexandria in January 2020) and the only one in Fairfax County.

Trace, like other zero waste stores around the country, is a small business built on a deep passion for the environment and commitment to conservation issues. Entrepreneurs like me just got tired of seeing the trash pile up, knowing it has nowhere to go. In my personal take on the zero waste store model, my suppliers are “closed loop”—meaning that I only work with soap makers who will take their packaging back. Once the five-gallon drums of soap are empty, they go back to the maker for reuse until they leak or break or are truly unusable, then they go for recycling. It’s more expensive to do this, but it’s worth it.

Food is more difficult, but I do take the extra steps to properly recycle the packaging that comes in the door. We’ve put very few boxes in the recycling bin, instead piling them up so that they can be reused a few times. Cardboard boxes with Trace’s inventory have gone to people moving house, preventing weeds, packaging fragile things, and to artists protecting their treasures. It’s a source of pride that we pay such close attention to the loop—and hope that others will too.

Another Trace offering is a program to recycle stationery items like pens, markers, glue sticks and highlighters that are out of life, and personal care items like plastic deodorant containers, toothpaste tubes, and floss packaging. And in honor of Plastic Free October, we’ll also be accepting candy wrappers. We’ll send these items for proper recycling—and hope you’ll try to switch to a more sustainable alternative.

Plastic Free is an adjustment, but it’s one that’s been worth it. It’s a single solution that cuts across multiple environmental and health issues. It would reduce dependence on fossil fuels. It would stop chemicals from leaching into the soil and water and into our bodies. Some would argue that it doesn’t make a difference, that all the plastic being produced is going to be thrown out eventually anyway. But there is still time to change behavior, and to motivate innovation away from the plastic that is causing so much harm.

Trace—The Zero Waste Store is located at 140 Church Street NW in Vienna. The store is open from 10 to 6 Tuesday to Saturday and from 12 to 5 on Sunday. On October 24, come by from 3 to 6 for a Halloween costume swap to save some money and cut down on the amount of scary trash being generated during the spooky season.

Mala Persaud