By Mala Persaud, owner, Trace–The Zero Waste Store

Every week of the Plastic Free Challenge, we like to highlight additional voices in the Plastic Free and Zero Waste movements. Today we hear from the owner of our only zero waste store in Fairfax County, Mala Persaud. As she mentions below, she does not yet have a storefront for Trace–The Zero Waste Store, but her wares are available at pop-up markets throughout the county. Check out her website here.

There are distinct moments in a person’s life when they can say that a path became clear. Maybe it was the decision about where to go to college, or what job to accept. This was one of mine: the moment I saw Jeff Bridges’ video for the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

I’d just come back from a trip to Belize, where plastic water bottles and single-use bags were littered all along the roadsides and the shorelines. There they were in their ugly permanence, staining the landscape along the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean.

Glass finger bowls from
the author’s grandmom

I had grown up with a deep love for the Earth and already harbored a disdain for our throwaway world. My grandparents are Hindu. Rituals honoring Mother Earth, thanking her for the gifts that give us life and health, were many. On a practical, day-to-day level, when my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Guyana in South America, I remember them reusing and repurposing items that other families thought nothing of throwing away. Paper towels were rinsed and reused over and over again until they fell apart. Empty egg cartons were used to start seeds for plants that would eventually be transplanted into the garden. (Recently, we came across these in my grandmom’s cupboard. Look more closely and you’ll see that she matched up the plastic lids from cans of nuts and coffee to turn these glass finger bowls into storage containers.)

Seeing the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s video with Jeff Bridges was shocking. I’d already (I thought) been off to a good start, skipping bags and bottles and passing up plastic when cardboard or reusable options were available. But it was clear I wasn’t doing enough. That’s when I bought a bamboo cutlery set and doubled down on my commitment to reduce plastic consumption.

Soon I saw how much more needed to change. The office’s “recycle” bins were a mess. If these were a mess (and I worked for a progressive communications agency!), what would bins in other offices look like? My kids at the time were in high school, and I was in charge of hospitality for the band. Because of plastic water bottles, cutlery, and decorations, a whole year of work to reduce plastic consumption in my own life would be undone in the span of just one event.

So as hospitality leader, I changed how we did events. We switched from donations of plastic water bottles to a water station with paper cups, and from dollar-store plastic tablecloths to colored butcher paper. We almost eliminated balloons completely. Not zero waste, but so much better. We took care not to waste leftover food, by ordering only what we really needed and donating the leftovers.

The author at a popup market

One day when my son was a senior, it hit me: we needed a zero waste store in our area, and I’d be the person to do it. Sure, we have bulk sections in the supermarket here, but they aren’t very well done. So I got to work and have been building, from scratch, a zero waste store to serve our area. I’ll be carrying over 300 products, including dry goods and spices, refillable detergents and personal products, and much more.

The COVID-19 pandemic set things back a lot, as it has for so many entrepreneurs. But things are finally coming together nicely, and I hope to open, if not in Vienna, somewhere nearby in early 2021. In the meantime, I’m doing a number of popup markets where I sell personal and household items and items like reusable cutlery and snack bags that you can use to save the planet when you’re out enjoying it. If you need anything between now and when my storefront opens, check out the website or get in touch and I’ll help you.

350 Fairfax is one of my favorite local environmental groups. I’m a wholehearted supporter of their work and am participating in the Plastic Free Challenge for the third time. This year, I am eliminating cheese completely and cutting out snacks that are wrapped in plastic. I’ll be encouraging signups at my popup markets.

Because even when you do as much as you can, there’s always one more thing to do to make the world a better place.