Fed up with the ocean’s plastic problems, UC Irvine post-grads open zero-waste market
Environmental scientists predict that oceans will contain more plastic, pound for pound, than fish by the year 2050.
Jessica Walden and Chris McGuire, doctoral students in UC Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science, have seen this trend firsthand in their oceanographic studies of the Atlantic and Pacific, where the water samples they collect are replete with microplastics.
“When every time I collect a shot glass worth of water and can find hundreds of these tiny pieces of plastic — no matter where you get the sample from — you realize the problem is much bigger than the public understands,” McGuire, 39, said.
The plastics cycle through the food chain and are ingested by humans. In March, researchers reported finding microplastics in the blood of 80% of people tested, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal “Environment International.”
McGuire and Walden decided to do something about the proliferation of plastics by branching out from the laboratory to another realm of experimentation: the marketplace.
In September, the newlyweds opened Amis de la Terre Zero-Waste Market in Costa Mesa. The name, which translates to “Friends of the Earth,” is a nod to Walden’s time at the Sorbonne in France, where she earned a master’s degree in oceanography and witnessed a consumer culture oriented toward sustainability.
The shop sells natural and organic pantry staples and health foods in bulk, allowing customers to take home their wares in jars or paper bags without creating additional plastic waste.
“We wanted this place to be warm and inviting,” Walden, 30, said of the market’s interior, which they built themselves. “We’ve been to stores in other cities or countries, and the ones that stuck with us are the ones that are warm and bright and welcoming.”
Rows of glass canisters display dried fruits, grains, flour, oils, vinegars, bee products and more. Shoppers can bring their own containers and assign each one an electronic ID that tracks the weight of refills. Staff are on hand to fill orders.
The store is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and weekends from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Walden and McGuire man the register when they aren’t teaching or conducting research at UC Irvine. They built interest and support for the enterprise on Instagram, through a GoFundMe account and from family and friends.
McGuire said changing shopping behaviors, while making consumers aware of the importance of producing less waste, has been more satisfying than discussing troubling trends with the academic community.
“It was like preaching to the choir,” he said. “We needed to pivot and figure out a grass-roots way to make a difference at the community level. Now, when people come in, we try to make it not only a shopping experience but an educational experience as well.”
At 1125 Victoria St., Amis de la Terre is just a few doors down from Fill Up Buttercup, a home and body refill shop that operates under a similar concept.
Fill Up Buttercup owner Jamie Lake introduced the newcomers in a Sept. 8 post to her more than 6,100 followers: “O.C.’s first and only zero-waste grocer is officially open! The best part ... it’s located in our shopping center.”
Lake also refers customers to the market.
“The majority of our customers have come from her store,” Walden said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without her.”
While the couple plan to complete their education at UC Irvine, Walden hopes to devote much of her post-post-graduate time to Amis de la Terre and, if all goes well, expand to other Orange County locations.
McGuire said their scientific backgrounds and understanding of all that is at risk give them a distinctive view of sustainability they hope to share with more customers.
“A lot of what we do is under the microscope, literally,” he said. “We can’t look at a single sample without seeing plastic. That gives us a unique angle because we’re scientists, and we see this every day of our lives.”
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