By Kendra Sitton
Isabelle DeMillan wants environmentally-conscious San Diegans to have more purchasing options to avoid wasteful plastic packaging and other waste. Thanks to donors raising $35,000 for her on Kickstarter, she will be opening the area’s first zero-waste grocery store The Mighty Bin in North Park at 2855 El Cajon Blvd. #5 in September. Ahead of the unique store’s opening, editor Kendra Sitton discussed with DeMillan why she was inspired to bring this idea to life and how the unique store will work.
What inspired you to open a zero-waste grocery store?
There’s four main issues that the store’s built upon that I wanted to address. There’s limiting our plastic use, increasing organic agriculture, preventing food waste, and the need for simple non-toxic ingredients. I wanted to address those four issues in a grocery store, and at the same time, with my experimenting with the zero-waste lifestyle, it was really difficult to become zero waste and I wanted to make it easier for everyone to lower the waste and just live a little more sustainably.
I decided that creating one place that is committed to provide the community with a convenient way to purchase packaged-free, plastic-free, organic, non-toxic foods, personal care and household products would just make it easier for everyone to live more sustainably and feel like they’re doing their part to help our planet.
How long have you individually been zero waste?
I’m definitely not zero waste, like no one truly is, but I started experimenting two years ago. I watched Bea Johnson’s TED Talk, she’s the queen of zero waste, and was just inspired by her. The change that she made in her life, it, it really helps with your mental and physical health to live more minimally and toxin free. I started purging everything and adopting different zero-waste practices around the house and daily life. It really did feel good. I felt those mental and physical improvements, but it was frustrating at times because there were things that just were a lot of work and our society is built upon consumption. That really doesn’t cater to a low-waste lifestyle so I just wanted to do something about it. That’s where the Mighty Bin came in.
What is the inside of the Mighty Bin going to look like?
It’s going to be a transition, so I really hope to make it easy for people to understand the layout and everything so the majority of products [are] going to be in gravity dispensers or bulk bins, and anything that isn’t that will be in glass jars. People will be able to bring their own clean containers, anything they have that’s clean, or their muslin totes they can bring to fill. If they don’t have enough or they need some extras, they can buy containers and totes. The store will also be having a jar donation section so people can bring in their old clean pasta jars and will sanitize them and put them out for people to just take for free. Then we’ll also be having a deposit container program so we’ll be having, most likely metal, containers that people can use and bring back, and then also we’ll be having recycled paper bags in case people you know need to use those. We will also be having a click and collect program so our website’s going to be connected to everything in our store so people can order groceries online and then we’ll package those up in store and they can pick up in store.
Then, we’ll be partnering with The Compost Group and we’ll be having a drop off buckets at our stores so people can sign up for the compost groups membership online or in store and they’ll be able to bring filled buckets of organic waste and drop them off in our store and then pick up an empty bucket on their way out — just a great way to create more composting in San Diego.
We’re going to be partnering with Fill Joy, which is a company that is geared towards zero-waste stores. Basically people will bring all their containers to the counter and staff will weigh all those containers, and there’ll be this software fog that we put on each container that will record the weight of every container. Then you go and you fill up everything you have and then once you bring it back, we check out, we weigh your product, and it will automatically eliminate the weight of each container so you’ll only be purchasing what’s in the container.
What attracted you to having a North Park location?
I was trying to find a location that is progressive, especially with green initiatives. North Park — it’s a great walking community and there are a lot of sustainability initiatives that they are adopting and it just seemed like the people that live there are usually young professionals, starter families, and they had that mindset of wanting to live more consciously and also healthy. I felt like it would meet the community’s needs.
Amid coronavirus, I am interested in how you will be making sure that the store is clean and healthy?
Prior to the pandemic, that was a big concern of mine in general. I’m a very clean person and I really like things sanitized so I already was creating a store that was different from what I see currently at a lot of bulk bins that weren’t maintained properly and scoops were found on the ground. It deterred me from wanting to use that and I just realized that it’s just not a way to get people to adopt that way of shopping. But since that was an issue, I really wanted to have a lot of gravity dispensers in my store. It’s a really great way to prevent any contamination and also it does help a lot with keeping the product, fresh longer. Anything that has to be in bins, I will be instilling a single-use scoop protocols so we’ll have a bin that has all clean, sanitized scoops and then a bin that has dirty scoops. Then we’ll be sanitizing them in the back so that will also help prevent any contamination. We will have a deli case so most of the time, there won’t be any non-dry goods that will be exposed to people.
How many staff members do you think you will bring on and what will their jobs look like?
In the beginning, I am just trying to gauge what it’s going to be. It’s just such a new concept. I’m hiring two people in the beginning and then the goal is that it will get bigger and I will have to hire more people. I’m really trying to make it more than just a minimum wage job. I’m trying to go above that and have more benefits, more of a living wage situation. I want them to grow with me.
You talked about this meeting a community need in North Park but do you think this will be a destination store for people in other parts of San Diego who want to live a zero-waste lifestyle?
I’ve been getting inquiries on ‘are you going to open up in North County?’ and ‘can you open up here?’ and that’s the goal. I would love to expand throughout San Diego. I also really want to have a delivery program. Right now it’s just the click and collect but as things progress, I would love to [deliver] so more people can live more zero waste.
Anything else you want to add?
I really want to make this store a community hub so education is really big with me. I think that’s a great way for change is to educate people and so I really want this store to be different from your conventional grocery stores where you can’t find anyone to help you and you know you’re just kind of going out on your own. I want people to come in and learn about the process and know what’s in their food. Also I’m going to be having sustainability workshops coming up, showing people how they can easily transition their lifestyle. I’d love to have a lot of collaborative events with local businesses. I really want to be a community store bringing everyone together.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.