Plastic bottles are the scourge of the ocean. By 2050, if humans don't make major changes, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish—it’s a statistic widely quoted in media. Yet even supposedly environmentally-conscious consumers like myself continue to buy personal hygiene products like shampoo and lotion in plastic bottles, because there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice.
Outdoor-loving sisters Tessa and Davia Rose-Scheeres, who are 13 and 11 and live in Albany, California, found themselves in the same boat. They developed a love of nature during annual six-week summer retreats at Lake Tahoe. Davia could keep up on 10-mile hikes when she was only 6. And they wanted to do something to reduce damaging plastic waste.
So, with their mother’s help, they built Sustainabar, a collection of shampoo, conditioner, soap, dish soap, moisturizer, and more, all in bar form, delivered in zero-waste paper packaging. The bars are between $5 and $9, the ingredients are clean, and they actually work.
The family has created and sold more than 650 bars, saving about 1,200 plastic bottles from going into circulation. Each bar provides 50-80 shampoos.
“It’s a labor of love,” the girls’ mom, author Julia Scheeres told me on a recent Zoom call with Davia and Tessa. “But people love our product. We don't want to charge a lot of money because we'd rather be evangelists and get people to stop using plastic. That’s why we're doing this.”
Tessa and Davia conceived of Sustainabar after trying cleansing bars sold by a popular commercial brand. They loved the idea of eliminating the plastic bottle, but the products contained harsh chemicals that left their hair dry. Plus, the bars were tiny and expensive at $12 a pop.
Luckily their mom happens to love both online research and the environment, and she began testing out various recipes.
Scheeres precisely mixes the batches herself, while the girls do the packaging, social media, write thank-you cards, and come up with ideas for future products—the latest of which is a super-foaming shaving puck.
But coming up with the correct formulas took hours and hours of research and a lot of trial and error.
“The first ones I made were too cleansing,” Scheeres said. “That was too much coconut oil. I've had to do a lot of studying on these obscure internet forums about how to make bars and something called superfatting, which is the ratio of excess fats that are floating in the bar.”
Once they came up with a formula that seemed promising, next came pouring the molds and trying out the bars on themselves. Some were way too drying. Others felt sticky.
“We've dealt with fishy smells, and remember that one bar turning brown because of the vanilla?” Tessa recalls.
“They’re my test dummies, as Tessa says,” Scheeres said.
Initially, they made the bars for themselves.
“And then once we got the formula down and it worked pretty well, we started giving them to friends,” Davia said.
A craft fair at Tessa’s school was their aha moment. When they sold out of all 240 bars they made for the event, they knew they had a business on their hands.
“That's when we noticed there's a lot of interest in this idea of zero waste shampoo and conditioner,” Tessa said. “And everybody needs to wash and condition their hair.”
Initially most of their customers were friends and family, but sales have expanded considerably. They’re also seeing repeat customers who are buying “quarantine care packages” for friends and family across the country.
I didn’t have high expectations when I tried Sustainabar shampoo and conditioner for the first time. I had tried natural, kind-to-the-earth hair products before, and they left my heavily-highlighted hair feeling like I’d just rubbed my head in a sandbox. But since (full disclosure) Scheeres and I are friends and former coworkers, I wanted to give the products a try.
It turned out to be a pleasant experience even before I put the products on my hair. Grabbing the bar rather than fumbling with a plastic container and lid (oh, the difficult lids) was liberating. It also smelled pleasantly earthy. And surprisingly, it lathered up nicely. I’d been using a non-sudsing shampoo for the past several years, so a lather felt rather fun.
The conditioner would be the real test. My hair is nearly down to my waist thanks to the coronavirus pandemic shutting down salons, and it’s pretty thick too. I rubbed it around my head aggressively, thinking it would be difficult to deposit enough on my head to tame the knots. To my delight, it glided right on, no elbow grease required.
When the comb slid right through my hair as smoothly as after using my old product, I was sold.
Plastic is so indestructible that a “rubber” (actually plastic) duck can travel the North Pacific Gyre—a vortex of currents that stretches between Japan, southeast Alaska, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands—in three years and remain intact, as many have thanks to the great rubber duck spill of 1992.
Based a 2015 study published in the journal Science, scientists estimate that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean every year. The researchers estimated that if wast management infrastructure wasn’t improved, it would increase by an order of magnitude but 2025. And 552 million plastic bottles wind up in landfills every year.
Considering all of that together with our country’s increasing appetite to mitigate damage to the earth plus the fact that Sustainabar products eliminate plastic and are actually good for your hair and body, I thought I’d better ask the family if they were ready to grow, just in case the business blows up.
“They're full time students. I'm a full time writer,” Scheeres said. “This is a labor of love. We're not doing this to get rich. But it's fun, and it feels good, right?”
The girls agreed with big smiles. But I still think the budding moguls better get ready to run a mini empire.