In the Bronx, a Shop for Everyday Essentials Operating Under a Zero-Waste Ethos
During a recent sort through my recycling—paper-towel tubes, condiment containers, and other receptacles—I noticed that the cardboard and glass bits were very few compared to the number of plastic bottles overcrowding the bin. Globular vessels of moisturizers, glass cleaner, and laundry detergent abounded. I paused and wondered: How can one person output so much packaging?
The same question is what spurred environmentalist Irisa Llana to commit to a zero-waste lifestyle: one guided by consumption habits that conserve and reuse materials in an effort to minimize the amount of trash in the world. (The United States produces around 292 million tons of garbage annually—around 4.9 pounds per person each day—and about half of it ends up in landfills.) The habit proved more difficult to maintain, however, when she moved from Manhattan back to her family home in the Bronx at the start of the pandemic, in 2020. “I tried to find zero-packaging options in my neighborhood,” she says, “but there weren’t any.” It was when she was riding on the train, schlepping glass jars filled with grains and soap home from a health-food store in another borough, that she decided to create a solution herself. The following year, with her sister Ana, she co-founded Ekosfere, one of the first businesses in the Bronx that operates under a zero-waste ethos, specializing in cleaning products for the home and body.
Ekosfere started out as a booth at Bryant Park’s 2021 Spring Up Market, and opened its first brick-and-mortar shop in the Morris Park neighborhood of the Bronx this past November. The space, which was previously a bakery that Irisa worked at in high school, is filled with everyday, mostly vegan and biodegradable products, made without harsh chemicals and housed in recyclable or compostable packaging. In addition to everyday items such as bamboo toilet paper and loofah sponges, Ekosfere sells liquids, powders, and creams—including lavender-scented body butter, dish and hand soap, shampoo, and oxygen bleach powder—that they sourced from small businesses around the country, and packaged in mason jars that can be bought as a one-time purchase or a monthly subscription. For the latter, the sisters offer a “closed-loop jar system,” in which they contact customers in New York City every three months and ask them to put their empty jars outside their apartment doors. The company collects the empty containers and takes them to its headquarters, where they are sanitized, refilled, and resold.
For the system to work, Irisa says, every Ekosfere customer needs to do their part. “All of the small purchases that people make add up,” she says. “Seeing the real-life impacts of our store and our system has been exciting.”