The mounting piles of single-use plastic containers that end up in landfills because they cannot be recycled have been a source of dismay for Virgin Islanders.
Now two entrepreneurs have teamed up to tackle one aspect of the problem by launching the St. John Eco Station, a distribution center for biodegradable cleaning products that arrive in the islands in concentrated form. The business is slated to open this month at the old Lumberyard Complex in Cruz Bay.
The idea is simple: Wholesale or retail customers arrive at the Eco Station with a refillable container (or buy one there,) purchase whatever amount of a product they desire, and add the appropriate amount of water. Presto-magico–their organic laundry detergent, window cleaner, or all-purpose cleanser is ready to use, at a price considerably lower than what’s now available on island.
Plastic bottles containing commercial cleaning products are a particular problem for landfill disposal because both the plastic containers and the chemicals they contain are harmful to the environment, according to Brian Granite, one of the company’s founders.
To address the container problem, “We thought, instead of trying to figure out how to recycle this type of plastic in our fragile island ecosystem, why don’t we just eliminate it all together by refilling those containers?”
That solution made even more sense when Granite started researching the cost of shipping cleaning products from production facilities in the States to distant islands.
“We pay for the movement from the manufacturer, to the warehouse, to the distributor, to the retailer,” said Granite. “We found that 87 percent of the cost of a product was the cost of the plastic bottle and the shipping.”
Granite has calculated that a 55-gallon drum of a concentrated cleaning product would produce the equivalent of 7,046 spray bottles typically sold in supermarkets. He began to wonder, “Why spend money shipping something that is mostly water?”
Granite initially conceived of the business several years ago when he came to St. John for a week’s vacation in a rental unit and forgot to bring along one pod of laundry detergent—all that he’d need for a short visit. When he went into a local supermarket to buy the minimal amount, he suffered a severe bout of sticker shock. “Fifteen dollars for one load of laundry?” he remembers asking.
As Granite was conceiving his business plan, he happened to start a conversation with a stranger on a beach. That person turned out to be Ken Haldin, one of the founders of Plastic-Free Islands St. John and a member of the board of Island Green Living Association. They discovered they had a lot in common and ultimately decided to become partners. Haldin told Granite, “I’ve heard a lot of good, green ideas out there, but this is one that can work out.”
Part of the Granite’s sell was that his business model is scalable—it can work on an island with a population of one thousand, or in Puerto Rico with a population of more than three million. “We’re piloting it on St. John, but it’s reproducible throughout the island chain,” he said.
One major hurdle was sourcing the kind of products they wanted to sell. They found a manufacturer in Massachusetts who was willing to work with them to develop a line of 100 percent biodegradable products.
As an example, Granite cites their modifications for laundry detergent. “We reformulated it to take out all of the thickeners and binders that don’t have to be there, and don’t even rinse out of the clothes well. We kept the surfactants that actually get the dirt out.”
Granite said they designed the products to be low-sudsing and lightly-scented. (If the scent they’ve chosen turns out to be unpopular, they can change that for the next batch. ) Their products meet Green Seal’s GS-37 standard which “enhances the safety of cleaning products by requiring them to be non-toxic and non- irritating to skin and eyes,” according to its website. “Products cannot be formulated with harmful chemicals from a comprehensive list, which includes heavy metals, phthalates, formaldehyde donors, carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, asthmagens, and ozone depleting compounds,” the website states.
St. John seems to be the perfect place to test out their products. “People here are behind the idea of cutting waste and using safe products,” Granite said. The mountains of trash at the Susannaberg Transfer Station are a ready reminder of the problems of disposing of waste on a small island.
Recycling in the islands has always been a problem because of the costs of transporting waste products to processing centers in the States and elsewhere. Because there is a market for scrap metal, the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority ships all those broken-down refrigerators and wrecked cars off island for recycling. Aluminum is also valuable, and various community groups throughout the islands have raised funds by collecting used beer and soda cans. Glass can be used to manufacture kitchen tiles and enhance the quality of pavement for roads. Plastics, however, are difficult to recycle, and large-scale processing facilities are scarce.
The problem has gotten a lot worse in the last year. For the past two decades, the United States has exported much of its plastic waste to China, but since January 2018, China is no longer accepting the world’s waste.
The St. John Eco Station can’t solve the problem of single-use plastic containers for water, juice, milk, and thousands of other products, but it can for cleaning products used in homes, commercial establishments, and the hospitality industry.
To verify that the company’s products do what they claim, Granite said he and his family have personally tested them all including Seafoam dish soap, Formula 340 kitchen cleaner, and Tsunami bathroom cleanser (which “wipes everything clean.”) “I have the cleanest home in Tampa,” he said.
Although he doesn’t own a home on St. John, Granite has been a regular visitor, making more than 40 trips in the last 17 years. Five years ago, he sold a chain of medical laboratories that he developed in the Tampa area. Then, feeling too young to retire, he started looking for a new occupation which would draw on his background in clinical laboratory sciences. The technological aspects of setting up St. John Eco Station have met that goal.
The St. John Eco Station will operate out of a modified container powered by solar energy at the old Lumberyard, and Granite is now looking for an employee who shares his and Haldin’s passion for sustainable environmental practices. Further information is available by contacting him at [email protected]