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Lori Mallini of Protea Zero Waste: Hawaii's First Zero-Waste Refill Store

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This episode features Lori Mallini, the founder of Protea Zero Waste, Hawaii's first zero-waste refill store, encouraging people worldwide to embrace the zero-waste lifestyle to lessen the need to use and produce plastic, which only ends up in landfills or in our oceans and destroys our planet, people’s health, and marine life.

Lori is an environmentalist and policy advocate with a degree in Environmental Studies from Hawaii Pacific University. Originally from Houston, TX, Lori grew up near the largest petrochemical hub in the country. This is where the beginning stages of plastic production occur and communities near her home are severely impacted by the effects of this process.

Lori now lives across the world in Kailua, Hawaii, where beaches and wildlife are severely impacted by the end life of plastic. She has spent her time in Hawaii advocating with Sierra Club Hawaii at the state legislature and city council for waste management, plastic reduction, and recycling bills. While change at the top is important, Lori realized that it's equally important to make positive change at the community level, which is why she decided to open Protea Zero Waste Store.

Social Media Profiles:

Podcast Questions:

  • Tell me a little about your background.
  • How did you get from Texas to Hawaii?
  • How is it living in Hawaii?
  • How did you get the idea for Protea?
  • Tell me about the swaps you're doing at Protea.
  • How does Hawaii deal with landfill issues?
  • Do you see a movement growing beside zero-waste?
  • What do you think is the future of zero-waste in Hawaii and America?
  • Any departing comments?

Location: Kailua, Hawaii

Transcripts

Welcome to the Saltwater High podcast. Hi, Lori. How are you?

Hi. Aloha. How's it going?

Aloha. I'm in Ojai, California. And you are on which island on Maui?

I'm on Oahu.

Oahu. Okay. Cool. I've had, I think, 5 Hawaiian guests in the last 7 or 8 podcasts. So there's a whole Hawaii theme going on right now, which is awesome.

There's a lot of creative people out here doing good things, so I believe it.

Yeah, yeah. It's great. And you're originally from Texas, right?

Yep. I'm originally from Houston.

Okay. Texas girl to Hawaii. Tell us a little about how that all went down.

Yeah. Well, at 17, I knew there was a big world out there that I wanted to see. And I moved to New York for a year to dance. And then I moved to California for a few years and lived in California as a dancer and then moved to Brazil for a couple of years. And then life brought me to Hawaii. And this is where I've been the longest. I've been here going on 6 years.

Wow. Awesome. Are you loving it or how is it?

I love it.

Yeah.

I love it. I love beach life. I love nature. I love being on the beach, and I love nature, and I love culture and my husband's a surfer, so it was a way to bring him to America from Brazil. So it was a combining factor, but I do love it here.

Awesome. So what part of Brazil is he from?

He's from Rio.

He's from Rio. Okay. I lived in Rio for 6 months.

Oh my gosh. That's where I lived for a couple of years. Fao Portuguese.

Si. Falam pouquinho.

Pouquinho, pouquino.

I speak fluent Spanish, so my Spanish and my Portuguese always get...

Combined?

They eat each other. Yeah.

Portuñol, portuñol.

Yeah. But when I was there, obviously, my Portuguese got a lot better. Yeah. I really love Brazil. The surf there is so good in Rio. People don't realize how good the surf is in Rio. It's amazing, actually. A little dirty in the city, but as soon as you get to Baja and south of Rio, yeah, I would go down there all the time and just get so much epic surfing. Nobody really around.

No one around. It's so good, I know. It's definitely a special place in my heart, that's for sure.

Yeah. You just had to lock your car and make sure there was nothing in it. That was the only thing.

I know. That's facts, that's facts. I lived there for 2 years and I was untouched. I was very, very lucky. But yes, cars, you definitely got to leave locked.

Yeah. Actually, I was robbed at gunpoint. Not while I was living there, but on another trip that I went there and I wrote a big blog post about it. It was probably one of the most energizing moments of my life. Yeah. Gun in the gut sort of stuff.

Yeah. That's why I tell people it definitely is there. It definitely can happen to you. Yeah, definitely heard many, many stories.

Yeah, well, I live to tell about it, but that's enough about me. Let's talk about your store. What a great vision. Yeah. How did you get the idea?

Yeah, let's talk about Protea. So Protea, we are Hawaii's first zero-waste refill store, and we opened last June. And I know you've probably been to Hawaii. You've probably seen the things, but here, our beaches are covered in an incredible amount of plastic, an incredible amount of trash that isn't land-based. It's from the oceans. And ever since I got here, I've been involved in clean-ups and just really been shook by some of the beaches on the east side of the island, east and north, and just the incredible amount of plastic and waste that is here. So I went to school here. I went to HPU, and I did Environmental Studies and started working with, I did some intern work with Sierra Club and worked with them kind of at the capital, pushing bills related to recycling and plastic. So I kind of started on that note, and then pushing bills at the capital is very good. But I don't know if it's what I want to spend my life doing and pushing for change at the top can be frustrating. And so I just felt I wanted to make more change at the community level. And I've always been tired of throwing away my laundry containers, throwing away those hardy, hardy plastic containers. And one day I was just like, "I'm so sick of throwing this away. If we count all the people who go through all these things every single month, it's incredible. And we should be refilling them." And at that moment, it just clicked. I was like, "I'm going to open a retail store." And if it wasn't for selfish purposes, it's also for the island as well, and to do what we can in our community to reduce our plastic. So it was a combination of been seeing the effects of our plastic addiction on our beaches, especially Hawaii's beaches that are so beautiful. I didn't know that Hawaii had this problem before coming here. It was really when I came here, lived here, got involved with clean-ups, and really saw what the issue was. So I was just like, "I'm going to do it." And I wanted to do it. And it's a little complex because we are an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the most furthest-from-land place in the world. So it was definitely something that had to be thought through. And, yeah, definitely came with some issues. But I'm very proud of what Protea is. We specialize in high-end beauty and cleaning products that are natural. We have a lot of local products. Anything I can find is local. The idea of the store is that you bring your own container, whatever container, fill it up with whatever you want, doesn't have to be full, and then you pay for all that you purchased. And yeah, we've been around for about a year and a half, and the community has been really stoked on it. We've saved over 8000 bottles in one year from going into the landfills.

That's amazing. That's a great idea. I remember when I was getting kind of the Rio theme. You remember those restaurants where you'd go and you'd fill your plate up?

Yeah, the Kilos.

Kilo. Yeah. You pay for whatever you put on the plate, right? And so if you put salad, you could put a lot of stuff on your plate, right? So that's a great idea.

I learned that the hard way. I put a lot of things on my plate. But yeah, it's a good idea. And it's also kind of helping people shift their concept and mentality of how we consume product, purchase product. I think people think sometimes they think refill store I need to bring my gallons, but I think a lot of us have a lot of bottles under our cabinets and things of product that we aren't using because either we didn't like it or we just don't use it anymore. So what I'm trying to also help people is just being aware of their consumption and only purchasing what they need. And of course, if they live on the North Shore and it's going to take them 2 hours to get here, get a little more, but really just being aware of the way in which we consume products as well. So I really like that aspect as well. I always tell people you can try things, get a pump, get two pumps if it's something that you like before you commit to a whole bottle. So it's definitely a whole new way in which we consume product. And yeah, I enjoy that shift of mentality.

Yeah. Do you know how Hawaii deals with landfill issues?

Yeah, so we burn most of our trash. So we have an incinerator on island. And I would say that a large percentage, I would say roughly closer to like 80% of our trash gets burned. And we do have some recycling. But again, we're an island. We don't have recycling centers that process that recycling here. So we either ship it to California, we ship it to China when they did accept it. And then the other thing with recycling here is they actually don't have to tell us what they do with the recycling once they take it. So we don't actually don't know 100% where the recycling goes. So most of our trash we burn and then we put that ash in a landfill over on the west side of the island, which is unfortunate because it's also where more of the local population lives and low income. And so they are stuck with the dirty ash from our burned trash. And those communities next to it are definitely feeling the effects from it. So yeah, it's unfortunate.

I wonder if that ash has any remnants of plastics or chemicals?

Definitely. Definitely. And then the wind blows, and then if they don't take care of the ash right away, and definitely, the communities over there are fighting another one being built. So it's definitely a contentious issue, that's for sure.

Yeah.

So that's what's so important is stopping that upside, stopping that trash before it even enters the way stream. So that's kind of what we're focusing on and even other local nonprofits on the island are really focused on stopping the trash before it even enters the stream.

Yeah. It seems to me like one of the biggest ways to mitigate that would be local grown or local harvested or local made products, right? Because obviously, it's probably hard to get a lot of the, I don't know, detergents. I'm just thinking of the big Tide boxes and those things are probably horrible, right? They take up so much room.

Horrible. Yeah. We are lucky that we have companies like my shampoo conditioner, body wash, body lotion, hand soap, they're made here in Kailua. We have a completely zero-waste cycle with them. They fill up my buckets. I clean out the buckets when we're done, drive the buckets back and we go back and forth. So for a lot of the products that we have local, which we have a lot of local products, we have really good zero-waste cycles with them. Cleaning products are a little different because we don't have any cleaning products made on the island. But what's great about the cleaning products is I buy them in big barrels. So 30, 55-gallon barrels. And luckily, they are plastic barrels, when those barrels are empty, I have a list of about 50, 60 people who want those barrels for agriculture, for rain catchment, for all kinds of things where they would have already purchased a brand new barrels. So we have not since the year and a half that we've probably gone through 30, no not 30, we've probably gone for like 15, 20 barrels that we've had an end-user for every single one of those barrels. So that's also really exciting.

Yeah. Upcycling. That's great. And if you thought about doing, I have a good friend that lives on Maui, and it's funny. He just sent me a pic. He just bought one of those barrels for water catchment, right? He thought about spreading out and kind of moving this positivity inter-island or the other people doing it that you know of?

Yeah, so since we opened, there was no one, no other stores on island. And since we opened up about a year and a half ago, there's about 6 or 7 stores now scattered throughout the island. So they have seen Protea's success and all that we have done to inspire the community and are opening other stores of their own. I always say for me, it's important to reduce our waste, but I'm also a human that really loves life, and I love to experience life, and owning a business is no easy feat. And so anytime anyone asks me to open another store because everyone always asked me, I'm like, "No, there's no way I would open another store." I love my personal life. I love also having this work and the store. But I am one of those people that has a lot of balance in my life. So I'm happy other people are taking that task on opening stores on other islands. So I'm glad I've inspired them.

That's awesome. Yeah. I think as a business owner myself, and you know this, it's one thing to think you can run a business, another thing to actually run a business and be profitable. It's a lot of work.

It's a lot of work, it's a lot of work. And especially if you don't want to nail yourself into the ground. And for me, when I found out as well it's like owning a home like you're like, "Oh, I just got to pay my rent." No, actually, you don't have to just pay your rent. There are a lot of things that come along with owning that home. I just fixed a water heater yesterday for $2,000, I don't even understand. But, business, stuff is hard. It's hard. It's hard. It's hard to profit. And especially a brick and mortar in 2021, right? Especially after a pandemic. Brick and mortars are hard. Online shopping has taken over the world. So not only that zero-waste is inconvenient. You got to wash your bottles, you got to bring your bottles. You can't just get the stuff at Target while you're already there. So it's also an inconvenient thing. So I really knew that with Protea, I really wanted it to be a place that people wanted to come to and it needed to be a cool-ass spot. So what I love about Protea is it's such a vibe. You come in, the music's going, the vibes right. It's Instagrammable, it's clean, it's gorgeous. So it's the place that people want to be to. And I think that also is part of our success as well. It's just the quality of the store.

Yeah. That just got me thinking when you were saying that, I wonder if there's a way to facilitate kind of the same idea, but where people, maybe they send, they mail. They're on island, or maybe they're on Maui, but they mail their containers to you and you fill them. Then there's a big footprint, right?

And there was actually a company doing that. They were actually the first ones who did that kind of concept even before I came around. They were doing mail-in shampoo conditioner and body wash and body lotion. And it just people, it inconvenience them even more for some reason. I don't know why. But I think what's also cool about it is they want to come in, they want to pump their product into that bottle, right? They want to be a part of it. At least the people who are shopping, they want to be a part of it. They want to take that action and do that step. They're already going above and beyond by shopping zero-waste. Those are the types of people that want to come in. They want to pump that product. And I can't wash all those bottles. That's too much washing. People won't wash those and send those back. I know them.

Oh, yeah. And do you find that there is a movement towards obviously there's a movement because there are more stores in one year than they ever were. But do you see that besides the zero waste, do you see farm the table and locally grown? Do you see that movement growing? Do you have Walmarts and Targets and that sort of thing on island? So what would incentivize?

Yeah. It's hard because we import I forget, like a high 90% of our food and we have so much land and so much good agricultural land here. But I think since the pandemic, it shown us how isolated we are and how things can change very quickly. And during that time, food supply lines got quite worldwide, meat was out, supermarkets were out. I feel like not that we hadn't been working on that for a long time for years before, because we have, but I think that really accelerated the movement. So many farm boxes became available. So people delivering farm boxes, those became huge. And I think we and many groups on the island are really pushing for more food production, more composting. It's really revved up since the pandemic. So that is exciting to see because we just have so much amazing agricultural land. And yeah, it's definitely picking up. It's definitely picking up. But we do have chains. We do have chain stores, and they're expensive too, though. It's not a price thing. You'll go to a local grocery store, you also go to Whole Foods, and they're actually the same price because everything is imported and everything is a little bit more expensive. So yeah, there is a movement definitely.

Awesome. And I saw you doing something called a plant swap. Tell me about that.

Oh yeah. So a thing about Protea is as much as it's a zero-waste spot, it's really a community space. I think zero-waste is even stronger when you have a strong community. So what we have really piloted at Protea's is we always have pop-ups of small businesses every single month. We have clothing swaps, we have book swaps, we have plant swaps. So everyone will bring a plant that they already have that maybe they don't love as much or maybe want to give it to somebody else, and then so everyone will bring a plant and then we'll be able to swap plants. And that some people will have a new plant. But we always do swaps. We started out with clothing swaps, and that was really our big thing, and we still do those. But yeah, we're always switching it up and doing something fun. And it's really a community space. We have a lot of fun at Protea. We do kids' events. We do all kinds of things.

That's awesome.

Yeah. This weekend we're partnering with 4Ocean and the Hawaii Animal Marine Response and a couple of other places here. And we're doing a coral reef clean-up this Saturday for Ocean Cleanup Day. So that's exciting, too. We do a lot of beach clean-ups, and this is our second reef clean-up. So that's cool.

And what does that involve—a reef clean-up? You actually go to the reef?

Yeah. So people will be diving. Some people will be scuba diving. Some people will just do freediving and just kind of cleaning up the fishing line, a lot of fishing net, fishing line, and then other items, like probably masks and who knows what down there. So instead of just cleaning up the beach, we're also cleaning up the reefs, since that's where all the marine life is. Yeah. But there will be people cleaning the beach as well. But it's fun because there's not many reef clean-ups. So people like to get in the water. They like to swim and do that.

I love that idea. Cleaning the reef. Unfortunately, we don't have any reefs around here. Everything's dead.

It's pretty dead around here as well, unfortunately. But we're still managing.

So what do you think the future of zero-waste is in Hawaii and America in general?

Yeah, it's interesting. When I thought about opening Protea, there was only about 5 stores on the mainland. Now there's over 50 stores on the mainland. So within just a matter of years, not only are more people opening the stores, we're also opening the stores because it's becoming more doable. There's more companies with cleaner products offering in bulk format. So the products are there for us to purchase. The people are there that want to lower their waste. So I think it's just every community at some point is going to have zero-waste store. Unfortunately, it's not possible with food items right now. So luckily, we can do this with all the other products. But I see it growing. I see it becoming one in every city for sure. Here in Hawaii, I see more popping up, and then yeah, I see more businesses offering products for us, like the people who do our shampoo conditioner and body wash. We weren't the first to refill them, but I've been showing them to all the other stores, and now I got them to make hand soap and who knows what also get them to make. So maybe one day we'll get all of our products sourced here. So yeah, really being able to supply ourselves here on island is really important.

And you said you can't do food. Is that a regulation?

Well, with COVID, nobody's doing self-serve food things anymore. Like Whole Foods, you can't take your bags anymore and fill up with beans or grains, or oats, or anything like that. We used to be able to refill our olive oil and things like that. But one, because of COVID. Two, I will never do food. I don't touch food. It would be nice if there was this concept as much as we have that a food place had this. So hopefully one day there will be more food options available for refill.

So what about Texas? Do you think there's going to be a movement in Texas?

Ohh. It's interesting. There are places in Alabama, there's places in Georgia, there's places. So it's definitely within the city of those places, I think there's some movement for it and Brazil, as well as always, 5, 10 years behind us. So sooner or later, I think it'll be a cool concept in Brazil, too. Yeah.

It's perfect for Brazil actually. The country produces so many wonderful things. Just Acai bowls man all day long. They can fill those up for me.

Oh, Acai bowls all day.

People think they've had Acai if they've had it. You have not had it until you've had Acai in Rio at very specific places.

They put all this crap on top, all this stuff. I'm like, "Yo, it's not supposed to be like that. The most you have is banana and granola and honey. And that's it." But it's not the same. It's hard for me. It's hard for me because Acai, people be like, "Oh, this Acai is so good." I'm like, "It's going to taste like a smoothie."

Yeah, a good Acai is, well, I've never done crack, but I would imagine it's like that because it's amazing.

I would too. My husband, he would always get out of the water and surf and just go get a giant Acai bowl. And so that is I know, one thing he definitely misses is getting his Acai bowls after surfing for sure.

Yeah. Well, there you go. Maybe that's your next business, Hawaiian's or Brazilian Acai.

I told you no more businesses.

No more business. Okay, okay.

I'm a sane human being. I'm a sane human being. Yeah.

I should have learned that from you. So where can people find you online?

Yeah. So they can go to our Instagram. It's Protea Zero Waste. That's normally where I do all my updates. I'm very much on the stories every day building that personality on my stories.

It looks great, by the way.

Thank you, thank you.

Yeah.

I really wanted to build a solid company.

Yeah.

So that. We have our website, proteazerowaste.com. We're on Facebook. We're in Kailua if you ever come down to Oahu, but yeah, it's definitely a cool place to check out, and definitely follow the Instagram because it's fun.

Yeah. Your Instagram is great. I really like it. Yeah. Any departing comments for any people that are interested?

Do what you can. Don't take life too seriously. Get a plastic straw. Don't get mad at yourself. Life's short. This is one problem we're trying to fix out of a million, so just don't take it too seriously. Do what you can and be a good human and be conscious about your consumption. And that's pretty much it.

I love that. You keep it simple. You keep it heartfelt. That's a great way to summarize it. Well, thank you so much, Lori. It was great to talk to you, and I wish you all the best. Yeah.

Thank you. I appreciate it.

We'll meet in Rio for a good Acai.

Rio, yeah, Rio. Sounds good. Sounds good. Have a good rest of your day, okay?

You, too.

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