The shelves of a Lincoln Square store are lined with jars of nuts, large jugs of shampoo refills and reusable water bottles, surrounded by art and brightly painted walls.
One thing you won’t find much of at Eco & The Flamingo is waste. The store, which opened in May 2020, calls itself “Chicago’s first zero-waste general store,” but despite being first, it’s not the only option — at least not anymore.
Co-owners Jackie MacCartie and Bethany Barbouti have added a second location in Evanston, and there have been other zero-waste pop-ups. At least two more permanent stores plan to open in the upcoming months.
Zero-waste is measured differently, but in general it’s just what the name implies: An effort to consume products with little-to-no packaging — with an especially keen focus on reducing single-use plastics. For example, a shampoo bottle. Instead of tossing it when it’s empty and replacing it with another, zero-wasters encourage bringing the container you already have into a store to refill or switching to a no-packaging alternative like a shampoo bar.
Zero waste has emerged in recent years as an answer of sorts for environmentalists and climate-conscious people for whom recycling wasn’t cutting it, especially in Chicago where the percentage of the city’s trash that’s recycled has historically been in the single digits. Dismayed by what isn’t being done on a grander scale to combat climate change, some residents are taking it upon themselves to help their neighbors reduce their carbon footprint.
Christine Sorich, who started zero-waste grocery pop-ups a year and a half ago, said it feels like Chicago is catching up with some other cities that have been leading the way with these types of stores.
“New York has been there, Berlin has been there, California has been there, but Chicago has been a little bit slower,” said Sorich, a Garfield Park resident.
Sorich for years had been noodling a concept for an alternative to typical grocers, where it can be hard to avoid plastics.
“The idea came from Chicago’s great need for a resource like this,” she said. “With the exception of the Dill Pickle [a Logan Square co-op] and some grocery stores where you could bring a jar into a supermarket and fill it up, there just wasn’t a space for people to easily do something like this in Chicago.”
Sorich, whose background is in the film industry, was already well on her way developing tinyshop grocer when Eco & The Flamingo opened its doors two years ago.
Suddenly, she could feel the momentum around the concept she had been mulling for years.
“I felt like if I had opened five years ago, it might not have been the time yet, but when Eco & The Flamingo opened and I saw this larger effort in Chicago, I just really saw hope for this change to actually be possible,” she said.
Throughout much of the pandemic, Sorich has been operating her business online and with pop-ups. Customers can order dry goods such as beans, fruit, grains, oats and coffee through the store’s website, then pick up their products (packaged in jars) at weekly pop-ups, typically held in Logan Square. But soon, Sorich will be expanding.
By June, she hopes to open the doors of a brick-and-mortar Logan Square location. She plans to immediately expand the store’s dry goods options and then move into produce and refrigerated goods — especially foods hard to find elsewhere without plastic. That means you probably won’t find bell peppers in stock at the tinyshop, since they often come zero-waste elsewhere, but definitely grub like berries or tofu that’s difficult to find without a sustainable container.
When it comes to zero waste, start small
Roscoe Village resident Kelli Pelc decided it was time to make good on her longstanding zero-waste store idea as pandemic protections like disposable masks and plastic carryout containers made sustainability more of a challenge.
Pelc’s penchant for being eco-friendly started as a young kid growing up in a household with parents who were insistent on recycling “even before it was cool to recycle.” But as an adult, Pelc knows it’s not as simple as “just sticking it in your blue bin and expecting it to be recycled.”
Especially when she learned how little Chicago actually recycles. So far in 2022, the city’s recycling rate is about 10.9%, according to the Department of Streets and Sanitation. And that’s up from last year, when Chicago recycled 8.6% of its trash.
San Francisco, which has reached recycling rates of as high as 80%, has set its sights on being zero waste entirely. Seattle recycles about 60% of its trash. Even New York, where recycling has been called a “failure,” does better than Chicago. In 2021, New York City recycled 17.6% of residential trash.
Pelc started on a journey of replacing household items with more sustainable alternatives, for example, eliminating paper towels entirely and instead opting for cloth napkins. Now, she wants to teach other people what she’s learned and make zero-waste shopping both readily available and affordable.
“A lot of times you have to go multiple places, there’s no one place you can walk in and get all your eco-friendly items, which is what I hope to provide a little more at my store,” Pelc said.
In June, she’s opening Refilleri as a pop-up in West Town, with plans for a permanent location in the neighborhood by fall. The store will start by focusing on “lifestyle, personal care and home goods,” according to its website, but Pelc hopes to expand into zero-waste wine, snacks, coffees and teas.
Pelc says being zero waste takes time and is all about starting small.
“Don’t go into your bathroom and be like, ‘I have to throw away all my plastic,’ ” she said.
As MacCartie, Eco & The Flamingo’s co-founder, put it, “plastic has its place.” Chicago’s zero-waste community just hopes that place is less often in a landfill.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.