Fed up with the ocean’s plastic problems, UCI post-grads open zero-waste market
Environmental scientists predicted in 2017 that, at the current rate of production, there will be more plastic in the planet’s oceans, pound for pound, than fish by the year 2050.
That’s a trend that Jessica Walden and Chris McGuire, two doctoral students in UC Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science, have seen firsthand in their oceanographic studies of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, where 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.
It’s a problem for people, as fish commonly ingest plastics that cycle through the food chain as they are eaten or fed to livestock that humans consume. In March, researchers detected microplastics in the blood of 80% of humans they tested, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal “Environment International.”
To help combat the rising tide of plastic proliferation, McGuire and Walden recently decided to branch out from the laboratory into another realm of experimentation — the local marketplace.
In September, the newlyweds opened Amis de la Terre Zero-Waste Market in Costa Mesa. It’s name means “Friends of the Earth” in French, 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 allows customers to purchase natural and organic pantry staples and health foods in bulk and then 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.”
Long rows of glass canisters display dried fruits, grains and different types of flour along with oils, vinegars, honeybee products and more. Shoppers can bring their own jars or containers and assign each one an electronic ID that tracks the weight of its contents. Staff are also on hand to fill orders.
The store is currently open Wednesdays through Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Walden and McGuire man the register when they aren’t teaching or doing research at UCI. When they sought to open a brick-and-mortar business earlier this year, they amassed interest and support on Instagram, through a GoFundMe account and among family and friends.
McGuire said the idea of impacting people’s shopping behaviors, while making them aware of the importance of producing less waste, has been more satisfying than discussing troubling trends among an academic community already familiar with the research.
“It was like preaching to the choir,” he said. “We needed to pivot and figure out a grassroots 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.”
So far, the enterprise is doing well. Located at 1125 Victoria St., Amis de la Terre opened just a few doors down in the same plaza as Fill Up Buttercup, a home and body refill shop that operates under a similar cause and 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.”
Walden said Lake reached out to them about the commercial space becoming available for lease. She also refers customers to the market three doors down.
“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 plans to complete their education at UCI, Walden said she hopes to devote much of her post-post-graduate time to Amis de la Terre and, if all goes well, possibly expand to other Orange County locations.
McGuire said the pair’s scientific backgrounds and understanding of a global problem, and all that is at risk, gives 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 Monday. “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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