How zero waste is A Drop in the Ocean, really?

How zero waste is A Drop in the Ocean Shop?
Listen to the audio of this post here:

This post first appeared in our weekly Make Waves Mondays email series on July 18, 2022.

Did you know that the average American throws away
4.9 pounds of waste…every single day? Removing composting and recycling, that number is still 3.32 pounds of landfill waste every day. 🤯

Now, as you know, part of our goal at A Drop in the Ocean is to help you reduce that number with our refillable and package free home and personal care essentials. All those products we use every day - shampoo, body wash, laundry detergent, dish soap…they all add up.

But have you ever wondered what that waste stream looks like a bit further up?

Because, in general, for every pound of waste we, the consumers, throw out, seven more pounds are thrown away upstream (aka in the manufacturing and production process). 


So the question becomes, if you’re buying a zero waste product, is it actually zero waste for us, too? Or are we just taking things out of packaging and reselling them as “zero waste”?

In short, it’s actually zero waste with us, too.

But if you’ve been around a minute, you know that’s never enough for me.

I’ve been collecting all of A Drop in the Ocean’s non-recyclable trash since January 1 so I could do a full breakdown of our trash for you.

And, because I’m so skeptical of recycling anyway, the only things I actually put in my recycling bin from the shop are pieces of cardboard and some paper. I didn’t measure those things, but know that I’m not collecting a bunch of plastic and putting it in my recycling bin claiming it to be recycled 😉

How much waste did we, a zero waste store, produce in the first 4 months of 2022?

All in all, A Drop in the Ocean’s unrecyclable waste in the first four months of this year totaled 4.13 pounds of trash.

As a business, we have produced just 13 ounces more trash in four months than the average American does in one day.

And that, my friend, is really freaking cool and I am incredibly proud of that number.

But you wanna know something even cooler?

Of that 4.13 pounds of trash, just 2 pounds were actually produced internally.

A Drop in the Ocean Zero Waste Store Internal TrashOur internal waste bin.

What is internally produced vs. externally produced trash?

Internal waste is the waste that we as a company are actually responsible for adding to the waste stream.

Our internal waste is made of up of:

  • label backings,
  • packing paper that was contaminated in shipment, and
  • bottle pumps returned to us.

And really, that’s it.

And as much as I would love to reuse returned bottle pumps, there is no way for us to effectively clean the pumps that would guarantee that (A) there is no leftover product in the pump, and (B) the pump is completely dry and therefore without any risk of growing mold. This is why we send our refills without pumps, so you can continually transfer the pumps to your new bottles without any waste!

External waste is the waste that we’ve acquired as a result of collecting materials from our community.

Our external waste is basically all plastic tape, labels, and stickers that we’ve removed from boxes that were donated to us by our friends, community members, and EcoWarriors.

We hardly ever purchase shipping boxes for this shop, because we are always receiving boxes from the people around us. There is no shortage of shipping boxes in the world, we just need to use what we already have!

However, because most of these boxes aren’t from sustainability-minded companies, there’s usually a lot of plastic tape and labels on them.

Plastic tape can contaminate the recycling stream if it’s not removed from boxes before being tossed in the recycling bin. And because we firmly believe that consumers should never be responsible for packaging, our goal is to make disposal is easy as possible when it’s not feasible for us to take it back.

For us, that means removing anything unrecyclable from the box before shipping it to you.

While that means that our trash output is going to be inflated, it also means that when you put your box from A Drop in the Ocean in your recycling bin, you don’t have to remove anything from it and it is going to be recycled.

So while we did not produce this waste, it’s still part of our trash output, but it’s ultimately going to lead to less waste downstream by reducing contamination. Plus, we’re giving loads of boxes second lives.

A Drop in the Ocean Zero Waste Store External TrashOur external waste bin.

How do we produce so little waste?

I’m so proud to share these numbers with you. And I’m not going to lie and say it’s always easy, but it’s so worth it to know that we’re doing everything we can to eliminate waste.

But it’s not enough to just share the end result. I wanna show you how we do it!

So here’s a little behind the scenes for your enjoyment 🥰

Closed Loop Refills

This is one of the things I’m most proud of with this shop. All of our refillable products are part of a closed loop system.

This means that not only can you return your empty containers to us to be reused, but we’re also returning our large jugs and buckets to our vendors to be reused.

Because we work with small, locally-owned businesses, we’ve been able to maintain this closed loop system since the very beginning. 

As time goes on, I’m hearing that more vendors commonly used by other zero waste shops are starting to offer closed loop systems for their products, but it’s definitely not the norm yet. So this system is really special to me, especially because we’ve always done it this way.

Last summer I even created a short video to show you how we do it so go check that out too!

Local, Small Vendors

Since so many of our products are made locally, we’re able to avoid a ton of shipping waste.

Our bar soaps, for example, are made just a few miles from us, so we get them in cardboard boxes, without any packaging, and then return the empty boxes back to our vendor when we pick up our next order.

Our Swedish dishcloths are printed in Seattle, and our bottles and jars are also sourced in Seattle, so we pick those up ourselves, which also avoids a ton of packing materials.

Sustainability-Minded Vendors

All of our vendors are eco-conscious and doing their part to reduce waste whenever possible, too. 

That means that when we do have products shipped to us, the boxes they’re shipping only use paper tape, and the internal packaging is always paper, too. We’re able to reuse these boxes (without removing excess tape) and packing materials in our own shipping and keep them out of the waste stream.

Buy Nothing Groups are the Best

Sometimes the boxes we receive product in or boxes we receive from our community are a bit too big for us to use for shipping. In that case, I’ll collect a bunch of them and offer them to my local Buy Nothing Group.

There’s always someone moving and in need of boxes!

Refill Labels Made from Trash

Okay this one’s real cool.

Our soap bars come to us without any labeling on them. We purchase the round kraft paper labels in bulk and print them as we receive our soaps, so there’s always just the right amount of labels for the soaps we have in stock.

But unfortunately, the backings of those kraft paper label sheets aren’t recyclable.

I used to throw these sheets away, until one day I realized that there is SO MUCH LIFE left in these sheets!

Now, when you receive a refillable product from us, you’ll notice on the jar or bottle there’s a little kraft label telling you what’s inside. Those labels are made from the same sheets as our soap labels!

By using these label sheets that would otherwise be trash, we’re getting a second use out of them, and using essentially the whole sheet rather than just the 12 round labels they’re intended for.

A Drop in the Ocean Zero Waste Store Refill Product Labels

Other Miscellaneous Zero Waste Things We Do

Obviously, zero waste is truly at the heart of everything we do here. In addition to the bigger things we do that I’ve already mentioned, there’s a bunch of smaller things we do that add up.

  • Our shipping label backings are curbside recyclable, but we use them as packing materials rather than sending them straight to recycling.
  • The printer we use to print all of our various labels was a gift from my Buy Nothing group, and we always print in draft mode to save ink and then recycle the empty ink cartons.
  • The notes we include with every order are cut from boxes we can’t use for shipping, such as White Claw and Cheez-It boxes, or are cut from the jar dividers we get with our glass jars.
  • Even the red sharpie we use to write “Fragile” on your order box was found at RE Tacoma, our local free store full of donated supplies for small businesses. I even have the photo to prove it 😉
A Drop in the Ocean How zero waste is a zero waste store?

So, friend, I’m sure I’m missing a few things we do to stay zero waste, but all-in-all, this is a pretty comprehensive list. And I’m seriously so proud to share our total waste amount with you from these first four months.

Even with the externally-produced trash, that 4.13 pounds is absolutely something to be excited about, and I hope you’re excited, too 😄

Which of our zero waste practices is your favorite? Do you have any further suggestions for how we can reduce that number even more? Let’s chat! Comment below and share them with me!


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1 comment

  • Linda

    I’m amazed at all you’ve done and are doing for zero waste. Seems so easy, but I know a lot of thought went into these strategies. Small changes make a big difference.

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