Byrd's Filling Station promotes 'zero waste' in San Mateo
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Byrd's Filling Station promotes 'zero waste' in San Mateo

Aug 22, 2023

July was Plastic Free month, when the annual challenge for more than a decade has been to go the entire month without generating any plastic waste from things you consume.

Laura Porter first learned of the challenge five Julys ago, and took it very seriously. It wasn’t easy, and by the end she found herself facing a 30-mile drive from her San Mateo home to the East Bay just to stock up on toothpaste sold in a glass jar.

“I thought, ‘There needs to be something here on the Peninsula where I can just run out and grab toothpaste, so I don’t have to worry about using plastic,'” she said in an interview.

Porter, a veteran of corporate finance, came away with an idea for a weekly farmers market booth that focused on sustainable goods. That evolved into online deliveries during the pandemic.

Now it is Byrd’s Filling Station, a grocery retailer that last May opened a storefront just a short walk from San Mateo’s downtown Caltrain station. True to its inspiration, there are no single-use containers or plastic wraps sold here.

Sometimes mistaken for a gas station, the store bears both Porter’s maiden name, Byrd, and her mission to fill up customers’ reusable shopping bags with coffee, eggs, dish soap, fruits, nuts, shampoo, laundry detergent and, yes, tubeless toothpaste tablets.

The store’s offerings are influenced by conversations between Porter and her customers, who often can name the plastic-involved goods that stand between them and a more sustainable lifestyle.

Porter can relate, having been through a similar journey during that fateful July five years ago. But the goal of zero waste is not an absolute: “Anything is better than nothing,” she said.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What kinds of customers do you tend to attract, and how do you convince them not to settle for the convenience offered by larger grocery chains?

A: We tend to attract people who are mostly tuned in to the environmental impacts of our choices, and who want to do a lot more in terms of choosing sustainable products, shopping local, supporting local, or maybe eating an organic or plant-based diet. But do we do a fair amount of education as people discover us and they’re curious to learn more.

We started selling pre-packaged items, because sometimes you’re in a hurry and you run in to grab dish soap — so we have Mason jars that you can keep if you want, or you bring it back and we’ll refund the deposit.

The other thing is we try to ask people, especially our regulars, is ‘What would make this a more convenient stop for you?’ Because I have yet to find anybody who says, ‘I can do all of my grocery shopping at one store.’ We want to be a place where people can at least do 90% of it.

Q: How do you work around price issues that might prevent you from selling products at scale?

A: While we’re looking for the products we want to carry, we look for where it’s coming from — is it local, is it organic, how is it packaged; all of that plays into whether we can bring it into the store.

Of course, there’s also the aspect of how much does it cost, because people are price-sensitive on groceries. So I spend a lot of time researching what other stores are doing, how they’re pricing their products, to make sure we’re on par or cheaper.

Q: Is a sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle something that people need to be trained to adopt? And if not, what motivates them to pursue it?

A: We talk about that a lot in the store. I don’t think zero-waste, in the world that we live in, is really an achievable thing. I think it’s aspirational.

We live in a world that is covered in single-use plastic, full of unnecessary packaging, and there’s also a lot of greenwashing out there. Really, it’s understanding that while this is the goal, you’re being OK with the fact that you might not get there or it would take you a very long time.

So you do one thing at a time. It’s about changing generational habits of what we were taught, of which grocery store to drive to, of remembering to take your bag or your jars or your bottles back.

It doesn’t happen overnight, so the best thing people can do to start is with just one thing. Do that one thing until it becomes a habit and you don’t have to think about it any more. Once it becomes a habit, look around — there’s probably a second thing, and then a third one.

Q: What are some of the gateway products that help you build regular customers?

A: Coffee is a really popular one. We do organic as much as we can; it comes from a local roaster here in San Francisco, Jeremiah’s Pick. We do it without the packaging — they bring us 5 or 10 lbs. of coffee at a time and it’s all done in bulk.

Because it comes in a large plastic bag to keep the freshness while it’s in transit, we then take the bag and we put it toward… outdoor decking and picnic tables, things like that. We think through all the aspects of it: How do we procure, and how do we make sure that we don’t add to the landfills.

Q: How do you get around the stigmas that might often be associated with trendy, Instagram-worthy stores that boast terms like ‘sustainable’ or ‘organic,’ which so often become co-opted to the point of losing their meaning?

A: We try to make it not just about selling you something. I’m not here to just sell you another reusable shopping bag — you probably have 24 of them stuffed in your car.

We really try to focus on, buy what you need, when you need it, as you need it, don’t buy too much. It feels really weird as retailer to say, ‘Maybe you don’t need to buy all that.’

Another thing is the grocery aspect. A lot of what we put in our garbage cans is food packaging. Having bulk bins is really important — they’re actually a very economically friendly way to shop.

One thing we’re really excited about, which we haven’t announced yet because I’m still waiting on the hardware: We have just been approved through the USDA process to accept CalFresh, EBT and SNAP benefits.

Accessibility is really important in the zero-waste world. And I think Instagram does do it a disservice, because you see a lot of people saying, ‘Look at this new thing I just bought!’ But it’s not supposed to be about that.

It’s just about how we do things, and how we get into that mentality of, here’s what we have — let’s buy what we need.

Organization: Byrd’s Filling StationPosition: Founder & OwnerAge: 42Birthplace: AlabamaResidence: San Mateo, CAEducation: BS Accounting & Masters of Accountancy, University of South Carolina


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