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Ray’s Reusables regularly parks at the Fairmount, Clark Park and East Falls farmers’ markets—and many other spots throughout the city. Check out the online calendar to see when the business will be cruising through your neighborhood.

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Business for Good: Ray’s Reusables

A Brewerytown resident’s pandemic-era business aims to limit plastic waste and bring sustainability to people where they live

Business for Good: Ray’s Reusables

A Brewerytown resident’s pandemic-era business aims to limit plastic waste and bring sustainability to people where they live

It was the jeans that spurred Ray Daly to action.

One day in 2019, while sorting through her clothes, Daly found herself with a pile of old denim, torn, worn soft at the knees, too shabby for the donation bin.

The idea of her old garments sitting for decades in a landfill was intolerable to the Brewerytown resident, a high school English teacher and part-time Whole Foods employee who had grown increasingly interested in the company’s mission of sustainability.

So Daly did what so many crafty people—including her mother and grandmother, who had taught her to sew as a child—would do: She repurposed the torn jeans, cutting them apart and turning them into cutlery pouches and denim bags. That simple DIY act inspired her to do more.

Two years later—in the midst of a pandemic—Daly has launched Ray’s Reusables, a growing business whose mission is to make it easy and convenient for Philadelphians to live more sustainably. Inspired by the increase in waste related to Covid-19, Daly last year converted a van that travels around the city, offering people the opportunity to purchase common household items, like hygiene and cleaning supplies, out of refillable plastic containers.

The goal is to combat the mountains of plastic in landfills: In 2018, according to the EPA, Americans dumped 27 million tons of plastic, accounting for 18.5 percent of landfill waste.

Since November, the van has been making trips to farmers’ markets, and has operated as a pop-up shop in various locations around the city. It offers shampoo, soap and various cleaning supplies for refills—many of them locally made—and it sells items like wooden pot scrubbers, upcycled denim products and fabric towels. Customers can bring their own refillable containers or they can purchase them from Ray’s Reusables.

West Coast inspiration

Like many businesses, the plan for Ray’s Reusables developed gradually. Before diving into the mobile model, Daly first sold her cutlery pouches and repurposed denim bags at farmers’ markets in Philadelphia while she researched what it would take to launch her own business.

She discovered Refillery L.A., an L.A.-based refill station housed out of a van that travels to people’s houses so that they can stock up on body, cleaning and home goods products using their own plastic containers.

“If you don’t have a car and you have to go across town and bring jugs, and you’re then toting laundry detergent and soap and all of these heavy things—it really adds up. And it can be pretty inconvenient,” Daly says. It makes sense, she says, that people might sooner opt for the convenience of buying something new at their nearby Target.

Refillery L.A. became the central inspiration for Ray’s Reusables. The mobile approach, Daly says, felt like a natural extension of her project selling products at farmers’ markets. “I want to be able to spread awareness throughout the city and go to areas where people wouldn’t have had access to refill stations before,” she says.

An estimated 1.56 billion face masks will have entered the world’s oceans as a result of the increased usage brought on by the pandemic.

Though Daly had been considering starting a full-time business focused on sustainability for almost two years, it was the pandemic that gave her the push she needed to launch Ray’s Reusables.

Throughout the spring and early summer, she noticed disposable face masks littered throughout the city, some of the estimated 1.56 billion face masks that will have entered the world’s oceans as a result of the increased usage brought on by the pandemic.

“You would walk around, especially in the early days, and you would see all these disposable face masks on the ground,” Daly says.

So, she put her sewing skills to use and began making and selling reusable cloth face masks. Daly dubbed the project “Masks That Give Back,” and committed to donating 20 percent of profits to local nonprofits and mutual aid organizations that fight hunger in Philadelphia, like Philabundance and The Food Trust.

Since March, she’s donated over $1,500. Daly has also made and donated over 500 masks to various organizations including the Philadelphia Department of Health and Human Services, Temple University, several local post offices and Bunnyhop PHL, a West Philadelphia mutual aid group that seeks to fight hunger in the city.

She put the rest of the money she earned toward starting Ray’s Reusables. In March, she went part-time at her job at a Center City Whole Foods to finish developing her idea and raising money to execute it. By September, Ray’s Reusables had become her full-time job.

With money raised from the mask sales and a small loan from her in-laws, she purchased the van and the business’s initial inventory. She then spent two months working with her father-in-law to create custom shelves for the van’s interior, and embossed the outside with a gingko leaf and the Ray’s Reusable logo.

Daly sources her products from a variety of vendors, including local makers and brands known for sustainability. She sources laundry detergent from environmentally friendly brands ECOS and Meliora, body wash products from the certified B-Corp Oneka Elements and eco-cleaning products from Sapadilla.

She works with local makers like Bee Our Guest and Salty Lemon Apothecary and sources hand sanitizer from Stateside Distilling. Many of the fabric products, like the denim bags, masks and paperless towels, Daly makes herself.

The business’s website features a calendar of events so that people can plan their refills. In addition to the traveling refill station, Daly sells her items online through the Ray’s Reusable site. Shampoo, hand soap and lotion have all been particularly popular items.

The eco ecosystem

Ray’s Reusables is not the only refill station in Philadelphia. MOM’s Organic Market in Center City offers refills of common pantry staples and several area grocery stores, including Weavers Way Co-op and Kimberton Whole Foods, offer refillable laundry detergent. But Ray’s Reusables is unique in its mobile approach, which Daly says was born out of a desire to make sure sustainability is accessible to people across the city.

As it stands, all of Philly’s refill stations are part of retail establishments, meaning that people interested in utilizing their services have to get to and from stores; for some, that may mean hauling heavy products for miles. For people who own cars, this isn’t that big of an issue, but for those who rely on walking or public transportation, it can be a challenge.

“A low-waste lifestyle should be the default setting, not something that only the rich can access, or a status symbol. If we care about social, economic, racial, and climate justice, we need to change our consumption patterns,” Rosan adds.

Low-waste lifestyles have come to be seen as inaccessible for lower-income people, even though they often live more sustainably than people from higher-income levels since they tend to rely on public transportation, don’t fly as frequently and don’t over-consume many consumer goods in the same way wealthier people do, notes Dr. Christina Rosan, associate professor of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University.

“Lower-income people, without disposable income, are often focused on meeting basic necessities so they do not have the flexibility or luxury of time or money to be making the more expensive purchasing decisions,” Rosan says.

“A low-waste lifestyle should be the default setting, not something that only the rich can access, or a status symbol. If we care about social, economic, racial, and climate justice, we need to change our consumption patterns,” Rosan adds.

Rosan says that she loves seeing companies like Ray’s Reusables trying to make sustainability easy and accessible for consumers. The next step in encouraging low-waste lifestyles, she notes, is for the City and businesses to bring in green jobs, to support and promote Black- and brown-owned businesses focused on sustainability, and to ban plastic bags and other single-use items.

“I love seeing these innovative, sustainable businesses that push the envelope on sustainability. It is great to bring it directly to people’s neighborhoods. Make it easy. Make it affordable. Make it fun. We need to scale these businesses up and help make them more affordable and accessible to everyone,” Rosan says. “Hopefully, there will be some exciting, entrepreneurial green jobs there too. I’d love to see Philadelphia promoting more sustainability focused Black- and brown-owned businesses. ”

In keeping with her mission to make sustainability accessible, products are priced at a rate that makes them affordable.

“When I was sourcing products, I tried really hard, especially with the refills, to look at what somebody might pay in Target and to source something that was still a really high quality product and still aligned with all of my values, but was not going to be twice as expensive,” Daly says. Her products are priced between $0.06 and $0.95 per ounce, with items like baking soda and distilled white vinegar falling on the lower end of the price spectrum.

In addition to the van and the website, Daly rents a space in Next Fab’s Olde Kensington location where she offers curbside refills by appointment and stores products like shampoos, soaps and liquid laundry detergent, which can’t be left in the vehicle in extreme heat or cold. Loading and unloading the van, she concedes, is an arduous task. “Come summer, I’m going to have really nice biceps,” Daly jokes.

Looking ahead

Though some might shrink at the idea of starting a business during a pandemic and an economic recession, Daly says that risk has paid off. Though she declined to share exact sales figures, she says the business is already profitable. She is looking to partner with more local makers and would love to team up with storefronts that would be interested in hosting the van as a pop-up.

One of the business’s biggest challenges is finding a place to park the van for pop-ups, especially in areas like South Philly where parking spots can be in short supply. Having a business host Ray’s Reusables can help guarantee Daly a place to park while also bringing new attention to the host shop.

In the long-term, she’d like to open a retail space that would allow her to host workshops where she could teach people how to adopt low-waste lifestyles and talks led by some of the local makers she partners with. Even if Rays Reusables opens a storefront, she says the van will always be an integral part of the business.

“Any time that I can offer a reusable, washable alternative to something that is a single-use item, then that’s great,” she says. “If I can bring the refills to people where they might already be—at a farmer’s market or in their neighborhood—it removes that barrier to entry.”

Photo courtesy Ray's Reusables

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