Living That Zero Waste Life

As two neurotic, cleaning-obsessed Virgos, we always look forward to a good spring cleaning. This year we decided to step up our game by greening up our approach to cleaning. Out with the toxic wastefully packaged products, in with greener, sustainable options that are healthier for all!

We turned to inspirational green doer extraordinaire, Leslie Campbell, founder of Sustain LA Refill Station. The Refill Station was born out of Leslie’s desire to create a sustainable alternative to expensive and excess product packaging. Sustain LA Refill Station offers all the daily necessities you’ll need from soaps, shampoos, conditioners, cleansers, and ingredients to DIY - all available together, in one convenient location. You can bring your own refillable containers, or choose from Refill Station’s reusable options. Leslie has made it her life’s work to educate others about how to adopt a Zero Waste lifestyle, and we are so thrilled to share her tips with you. A wise muppet frog once said, “It’s not easy being green,” but Leslie proves it’s not as hard as you might think.

What makes you passionate about your work?

Leslie: Growing up, I spent a lot of time playing in the woods behind my parents’ house and in the lake nearby, and I loved it. That love of nature has always been with me and working to protect it is my happy place. When I first started learning about zero waste and sustainability, something clicked. Concepts like the Precautionary Principle (do no harm) felt like common sense, and I wanted to learn more and do more.

Once my daughter was born, there was, of course, a greater desire to ensure a hospitable planet for future generations. Plastic pollution is a crisis of our lifetime that has devastating implications for lifetimes to come. Launching the SLA Refill Station helped me take action, find purpose, and it has been incredibly rewarding and inspiring. I fall in love with it every time someone refills and tells me about their journey. Together, we are changing the concept of convenience, and it feels so good.

When we talk about “green/clean” products, what does that actually mean? Is “organic” something you always look for?

Leslie: This is a great question. There is no “organic” certification for cleaning products. Ingredients can be certified organic, and there are regulations as to what type of sanitizers/cleaners can be used on and around certified organic foods. My recommendation is to bypass claims on labels and look at the ingredient list and for third party certifications. A great example of transparency in ingredients is Dr. Bronner’s. While there is quite a lot to read on those bottles, check out the ingredients and the information and compare that to what’s in your cabinet. A company’s website is also another great source of information.

Some third-party certifications include: EWG’s (Environmental Working Group) Guide to Healthy Cleaning, and US EPA Safer Choice.

What are the cleaning must-haves that you personally keep in your home? What things can you not live without?

Leslie: Distilled white vinegar, hot water, Castile Soap, Hand Soap, Dish Soap, Lemons, Sal Suds (by Dr. Bronner’s). All of these products can be found at Sustain LA Refill Station, package and plastic free! Bring your own containers to refill or purchase one for reuse.

We keep a couple spray bottles with 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water and use those to clean most everyday mishaps (kid + cat) and floors, and Sal Suds to clean everything in the bathroom.

Castile soap is another favorite. I use it for many of my daughter’s things like the travel potty and shoes. I’ve also found it is a great stain remover. I apply a bit directly to the stain, add a bit of water, rub until sudsy and toss in the washing machine. Most stains disappear even if previously washed and dried. I’m a fan!

I’ve included hand and dish soap, because I think hot, soapy water (or warm or cool for kids) is underrated. We don’t “sanitize” with bleach or other disinfectants as part of our routine. (We do keep disinfecting wipes and non-chlorine bleach in our earthquake supply- when water might not be readily available). While there are certainly instances when disinfecting is necessary, like medical facilities, I feel the obsession with “germs” has gone too far, to the detriment of our environment and human health. And this is not judgment; we’ve been told, or sold, that germs are bad and disinfectants and antibacterial products are good.

We do practice some preventive measures that I feel are also underrated, but help eliminate the need for regular disinfecting. We wash hands when we come home, and we take off our shoes. It’s a system that works well for our family (and it reduces the amount of cleaning that is needed!).

When reading labels, what ingredients do you avoid? If you came over to a friend’s house, what would be the first things you’d tell them to toss?


  • Parabens

  • Phthalates

  • Fragrance

  • Antibacterial

  • Antimicrobial

  • Triclosan

  • PEG

If a friend asked me what to get rid of, I’d first look at the number of cleaners and their ingredients. Can you find the ingredients? Cleaning products aren’t required to disclose them, but why should we be using products in our homes and around our families without the basic knowledge of what we’re using? We’ve also been sold that we need a separate cleaner for everything. That’s nuts, expensive and taking up way too much space in our homes!

The ethos of Sustain LA and Refill Station encourages people to lead a Zero Waste lifestyle. What are some practices you’d recommend for a person new to this approach?

Leslie: If you’re new to Zero Waste, my initial advice is to go slow and use up what you have. It’s not “Zero Waste” to toss out functional items (plastic toothbrush) and buy something new (bamboo toothbrush), even if the new version is “plastic-free.”

A great start is to identify single-use items of any material and consider ways to eliminate those from your life.

Here are some Zero Waste 101 starts:

  • Bottled or boxed water is a no-brainer. It’s expensive and one of the worst products for our environment and communities. If you need to invest in a reusable water bottle, I definitely recommend that purchase. Choose glass or stainless steel, and check out your local thrift for deals.

  • Disposable coffee cups are another huge waste. Bring your own container to the coffee shop or ask for your beverage in a ceramic mug because you’re able to slow down a bit and enjoy your coffee in house.

  • Refuse to-go utensils, straws and napkins and bring your own. This may require extra steps, like opening the bag and asking the staff to take them back. Once you’ve had some practice there, try bringing your own container for to-go food. (Try ordering “for here” and then transferring to your own container.)

  • Paper or plastic shopping and produce bags are unnecessary and easily avoided by bringing your own.

  • Buy bulk dry foods; check out your local grocery and see if they offer any dry goods (flours, rice, pasta, etc.) in bulk. Bring your own bags and containers to further eliminate unnecessary packaging.

  • Refill station- visit a refill station (I’m partial to Sustain LA, obviously!) to refill your household cleaners and body care products when empty.

Zero Waste is a journey, and that journey looks different for everyone. Small steps soon become significant changes. Be kind to yourself along the way and try not to compare your progress with social media success stories. Congratulate yourself along the way for small victories!

I hear you on the small victories! In an attempt to take on Big Straw, I recently bought a set of metal straws with a case for my purse and, while my personal straw consumption may not change the world, I’ve found it’s been a great personal reminder to opt for other sustainable choices whenever I use it! How has the Zero Waste Way changed how you as a consumer?

Leslie: My journey, very simply, has helped me buy less crap, save money and spend more time doing things I love. It has led me to thoughtfully consider the purchases I do make and helps me navigate the endless marketing claims and planned obsolescence. Products are designed to fail to keep people buying more. By buying less overall, I’m able to invest in products that are more durable (look for lifetime warranty) and better quality.

We love one of your company’s mottos, “Working together to disrupt the concept of convenience.” People may think it’s too hard, expensive or time consuming to create Zero Waste habits…what do you say to those naysayers?

Leslie: A zero waste lifestyle is different, but it is not harder, more expensive or more time consuming. It’s a shift in priorities and systems. Making that change can be time consuming and difficult in the beginning, but it’s a rewarding process. Paper towels vs. cloth rags might be a good example. When people compare these options, they think of two scenarios. One, grab paper towel, wipe up spill, throw away and done. Easy. Two, grab cloth rag, wipe up spill, can’t throw away, have to wash rag. Not easy. These scenarios, however, don’t give the full picture. While the cloth rag does require washing, that paper towel didn’t magically appear in your hand. Here is a more realistic version:

Paper towels: go to store; purchase paper towels and likely other non-necessity, spontaneous items; go home; unpack car; store paper towels; reload paper towel holder; use paper towels to wipe up spill; throw away; take out trash when full; recycle cardboard tube when empty; REPEAT

Cloth rags: stack old t-shirts, dish towels, etc. in a pile; use cloth rag to wipe up spills; rinse and hang to dry; toss in hamper or bin; wash; dry; fold (or don’t!); REPEAT

If there is a system in place for cloth rags, they’re easy, absorbent, durable and INEXPENSIVE.

Approximately eight years ago, I estimated our family saved $600/ year by reducing and eliminating single-use disposables. We still have some of the same cleaning cloths, and I would estimate a greater savings now as price points of disposables have likely increased.

Just in case you were wondering, the water used to wash a cloth rag (or cup, or plate, or any durable that replaces a single-use disposable) is minuscule compared to the amount of water used to make that paper towel, plastic cup, etc. The manufacturing processes for both paper and plastic are very water intensive. (Sierra Club’s Ask Mr. Green broke this down for a reader’s inquiry.) So, be water wise, but don’t worry about washing reusables! 😊

Are there any natural DIY cleaning product hacks you’re into right now? (We’re basically just throwing vinegar on everything and calling it a day!)

Leslie: Big fan of vinegar, obviously. Adding used citrus peels (well drained of juice) to vinegar and steeping for a couple weeks gives a nice citrus scent infusion. A little baking soda sprinkled in the drain followed by white vinegar is a great way to clean drains. Old toothbrushes are great for small spaces, shoes and rough surfaces. Old lemons and lemon peels are great for cleaning garbage disposals. Chop up, drop in and turn on. Adding some ice is great, too. I also periodically rub lemon slices across our wooden cutting boards to clean and disinfect.

Anything else you think our readers should know to make their homes safer and sustainable!

Leslie: Dishwashers are more water efficient than hand washing - just turn off the heated dry setting. Ditch dryer sheets and anything that leaves a fragrance for days and through washings. If reusable water bottles are part of your routine, you likely find yourself with bottles not quite empty, but not really still suitable for drinking. This water is great for watering plants! We keep a small watering can right next to the kitchen sink for just this purpose.

Leslie, you are an inspiration! Thank you for giving us the green goals we never knew we needed. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram to find Sustain LA’s Refill Station’s schedule for upcoming farmer’s markets. Sustain LA is also available to help with any company or private events, also offering rentals on service-ware for your next party.

About Leslie Campbell:

Leslie has been involved in, studying and practicing sustainability and zero waste for over ten years. On her path to founding Sustain LA, she completed UCLA Extension’s Global Sustainability program (Earned with Distinction), as well as becoming a Certified Sustainable Recycling and Resource Management Professional with the California Resource Recovery Association in 2010. She was a U.S. Green Building Council LEED Green Associate from 2010-2014, and holds an AA in Environmental Studies from Santa Monica College with Honors.

She is a founding coalition member of Don’t Waste LA and an active member of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council Food Waste Prevention and Rescue Working Group and the Board of Public Works’ Zero Food Waste Task Force. Leslie was also invited by Mayor Garcetti’s Office of Sustainability to be a part of the pLAn Waste Working Group. In addition to operating Sustain LA, she is currently pursuing a Food Studies Certificate, UCLA Extension (anticipated Spring 2019), focusing on food insecurity, surplus food rescue and transparency in food labeling- with the goal to reduce food insecurity and food waste and increase ongoing sustainable solutions for businesses and local communities in Los Angeles.

Leslie and her husband have called Los Angeles their home for twenty years. Together with their daughter (a mini but fierce zero waste warrior and their true inspiration for a sustainable future!), and their cat, they enjoy a zero waste lifestyle, public transportation, and of course plenty of time in the great outdoors, where her zero waste dream was born.


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