Zero-waste on a local scale: Accessible ways we can address the waste crisis in our own communities

Eau Claire small businesses champion the city’s zero-waste initiative


Annie Ward

Evelyn Nelson, a fourth-year journalism student, pumps her body wash into a small reusable glass jar, provided by The Eau Claire Refillery’s jar donation program. In recent years there has been a noticeable shift to reducing waste in our homes, public spaces and landfills, the Zero Waste International Alliance Writes. (Annie Ward)

My journey toward a zero-waste lifestyle started with a jar. Not my own, but that of Lauren Singer, an online content creator focused on zero-waste lifestyles. Singer’s jar of trash became an overnight sensation; so did the public’s interest in zero-waste.

The Zero-Waste International Alliance defines zero-waste as the conservation of resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of materials.

After living in Eau Claire for almost four years, I still find challenges in producing zero-waste in the most essential parts of my daily routine. The transition to plastic-free toothpaste has been especially difficult when the most accessible products are traditional plastic tubes.

To assist in overcoming barriers to the movement, the City of Eau Claire has joined the waste-crisis conversation. Up-and-coming businesses like The Eau Claire Refillery and The Juggery provide resources that make the transition to a low-waste lifestyle accessible and realistic.

A refillery, as explained by the Let’s Go Zero-Waste blog, offers consumers the option to reduce their single-use plastic consumption through refillable and reusable products. Other refilleries in the Midwest include Tare Market in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Green Life Trading Co. in Madison, Wisconsin.

Refilleries offer affordable products that consumers can easily transition into their homes, Greta Gladitsch, owner and operator of The Eau Claire Refillery, said. With the closest refill option being over an hour away, Gladitsch wanted to bring access to the zero-waste movement to Eau Claire.

“We have been refilling — or I should say — attempting to go zero-waste at our house for several years and trying to make our own things,” Gladitsch said. “There’s nothing like this in Eau Claire and I think this is the perfect time to open (the refillery).”

In visiting The Eau Claire Refillery, I was astounded by the number of bulk products available for consumers. Plastic-free lint rollers, body wash and reusable wool dryer balls were all items available to purchase for under $15.

Greta Gunnarson, owner and operator of The Juggery, said the idea for her refill pop-up shop came from a personal desire to learn and apply low-waste practices in her own home. 

“There are many ways to go zero-waste and this is just one that we can bring to the community,” Gunnarson said. “There’s always more that we can do and more people who are unaware of this movement.”

She saw interest from friends and locals in the community and knew there was more to be done in advocating for waste reduction on a local scale. From this idea, she explained, The Juggery became an outlet to begin a zero-waste lifestyle.

Both new refill shops have received positive responses from community members of The Eau Claire and Chippewa Valley. According to the 2023 Volume One “Best Of Reader Poll,” both shops placed first and second respectively in the “Best Business for Eco-Friendly Products and Services” category. 

Students at UW-Eau Claire are doing their part to combat the waste crisis through low-waste dining alternatives. Ben Young, a fourth-year geology student, became involved with the Administrative Office of Sustainability’s BluBox program to help reduce “to-go” plastic waste on campus. 

Young said he felt there was an opportunity for students to learn about waste reduction in an accessible way and bridge a divide in the way students, faculty and staff understood waste disposal on our campus. 

“Low-waste is kind of the golden term — the best thing we can do as people is to try to decrease the amount of waste we produce,” Young said. 

There will always be some form of waste resulting from our actions. The reality of this can be a hard pill to swallow and can make the goal of zero-waste that much harder to attain.

Despite the weight that the waste and climate crisis hold on our communities, Gunnarson said The Juggery’s mission is to not take things too seriously when it comes time to begin your zero-waste journey.

“We just want to have fun,” Gunnarson said. “We want to change that narrative around this and make it a fun thing to do, rather than focusing on the negatives.”

Likewise, Gladitsch said she hopes The Eau Claire Refillery becomes a place to provide an educational entry point to those taking the first steps toward going “zero-waste.”

“I always say, you know, one step is better than no steps at all,” Gladitsch said. “For anybody that walks in, if they are just looking for something they want to try before making that zero-waste switch? I’ll always say ‘just try’ and we can go from there.”

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something — this is the value I hold onto as I continue to do my part in the pursuit of a life of low-waste. 

For more information on the waste reduction initiatives at UW-Eau Claire, visit the university Administrative Office of Sustainability webpage. The Juggery can be found on Instagram @thejuggery and The Eau Claire Refillery on Facebook @theeauclairerefillery

Nelson can be reached at [email protected]