Kay Baker is an occupational therapist. Her husband, Matt Keasey, is a neuroscientist. So, naturally, they got into the zero-waste business. Well, it wasn’t that straight of a line.
“Working in science, I have to make up on a daily basis various solutions, taking salts, weighing them out and adding water,” Matt says, speaking of the process known as buffering.
“And I was thinking it would be cool if I just had a little tablet I could throw in,” he continues. “Kay and I had been wanting to do something together. Not necessarily a business, but a project that was ecologically conscious. We took a trip to Walgreens and went down the cleaning aisle, and it was just plastic everywhere, piled high.
“So it was my days in the lab making solutions and wanting to do something together. Kay said, ‘Why don’t we do the buffer thing, but for cleaning?’”
Those crazy kids. But that’s how Green Llama, headquartered in Johnson City, was born.
The concept of zero waste means reusing as many things as possible to avoid sending them to a landfill. Proponents suggest some common-sense decisions that would vastly reduce what goes in the trash:
• Refuse to buy anything with lots of excessive packaging (we might have to start a conversation with Amazon).
• Reduce what you buy to only what you need. Invest in reusable products like steel water bottles.
• Refill existing containers rather than replenishing single-use products like cleaning supplies. Repurpose worn-out items and shop for used goods.
• And compost if you can.
“Start utilizing refill systems,” says Brandi Prewitt, director of development and communications for the Tennessee Environmental Council. “Use a nice canvas reusable tote instead of plastics. Rather than using liquid hand soap, you can use a bar of soap. Instead of a plastic loofah, buy a real one that comes from nature.
“Another easy one is changing from a plastic toothbrush to a bamboo toothbrush. The bristles are the same. The only difference is the handle. A hay straw is the original drinking straw before plastic took over. It’s why straws are called straws. There’s literally a zero-use way for any product.”
Green Llama’s products are basically cleaning pods consumers add to a glass bottle of water. There’s one for cleaning bathrooms, one for cleaning glass and another all-purpose formulation that can be used for everything from wood tables to tile floors.
“We started testing our formulations in our kitchen,” Baker remembers. “Lots of testing and that’s where Matt’s background comes in handy. We turned our backyard garage into a lab where we could test formulas. We launched small at the Johnson City Farmers Market.”
Now they’re in 24 stores and ship nationwide through their website, www.greenllamaclean.com.
Part of reuse involves turning something that was created for one purpose into something to be used in an entirely new way.
During the height of the pandemic, Southwest Airlines had the opportunity to update the leather seats used on their aircraft. Faced with a warehouse full of outdated seats, Southwest turned to nonprofits nationwide, including Turnip Green Creative Reuse in Nashville. Turnip Green diverts artistic materials destined for landfills to teachers, students and artists.
“We ended up writing them a proposal saying we can turn that airline seat cover material into really cool stuff,” says Leah Sherry, Turnip Green’s executive director. “We funded a bunch of artists, and they made backpacks, fanny packs, purses, wallets and bags for children in foster care.”
They also created 10,000 art kits for students to use at home while in-class learning wasn’t possible.
Some of the zero-waste movement centers on plastics, one of the least effective materials in the recycling stream.
“300 million tons of plastic is produced every year and less than 9% is getting to the recycling plant,” says Keasey. “So one of the cool things about what we’re doing is we’re going around the recycling so it’s not even an issue anymore.
“We remove all of that plastic. Even the concern of having to throw your plastic into a recycling bin. We really don’t need plastic for everything. Where we can remove it, we should.”
But reuse goes so far beyond plastics.
“Reuse is something that every single person can do,” says Sherry. “Recycling is better than throwing it away, but reuse is something that everyone has the possibility of doing and it makes a difference in people’s lives.”
Baker says one of the best pieces of advice she’s gotten is to make do with what you have.
“Instead of buying a lot of new clothes, use the ones that you have,” she says. “Something that looks old, redo it instead of having something brand new. We took our strawberry flats and used them to replant our seeds.”
Prewitt says making small changes will ultimately lead to big results.
“It’s not really a complete lifestyle change,” she says. “These are easy changes that anyone can make. And we need all Tennesseans to be making these small changes that will end up making real differences.”
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