Jane Goodall once said “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.”
The statistics of the damage that we’re doing to this planet are shocking, and sadly, the pandemic has not only been bad for our spirits and pocketbooks, it’s been terribly bad for the environment as well. Did you know that Americans use half a billion drinking straws every day? Or that an estimated 583 billion plastic bottles were produced in 2021, and this year five trillion plastic bags will be used? That’s 160,000 bags every second! Hopefully, our new ban on plastic bags in Philadelphia will start to help lower those numbers. But we need to start taking personal responsibility for the environment.
This Earth Day, April 22nd, there will be a number of opportunities to learn about what you can do and to take part in local efforts. There’s an Earth Day Festival in New Hope, there’s a global Earth Day run, tree plantings, a full day of programming at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, and more. Or, if you don’t like crowds, just google “ways to reduce your carbon footprint” for tips on ways to help. One person doing something about it is this week’s Portrait, Ray Daly. Daly is the owner of Ray’s Reusables, a lovely little store on 2nd Street in Northern Liberties. I stopped by the store to have a chat with her and had a chance to see the enthusiastic customers come into the store to refill bottles of shampoo, laundry and other liquid products and peruse the many eco-friendly products in the shop. I’ve rarely seen a commercial entity with so many smiling customers.
Let’s start with an easy question, what part of this blue earth do you come from?
Well, not so easy; I’m an Air Force brat so I kind of grew up all over. If you want to be specific, I was born in Phoenix, AZ, and then when I was about 9 months old we moved to England and then Italy and then back to the States when I was about 7. Most of my life was spent in Maryland, right around the Annapolis area.
Which parent was enlisted, and how old were you when you were aware of being somewhere different?
Both of my parents were in the Air Force. They desperately wanted me to join but that was not going to happen. I guess I’d say when we were in Italy is when I first realized what was going on. My parents put me in an all Italian kindergarten and I think I was the only English speaking student there. It is something a lot of people go through here, not speaking English and trying to get by, so I can empathize with that.
Do you speak Italian?
No, no, not really. But I think kids are good at communicating when they don’t speak the same language.
Tell me a little about growing up in Maryland?
Both of my parents were finished with the military, and we moved back to be closer to my mother’s family. We still moved a lot, first we lived with my Aunt, then there was an issue there so we moved again and then my parents split so we moved again, and then moved again a few times with each parent. I didn’t settle down and have a place where I lived in perpetuity until high school, in the place where my mom lives now. It’s a small community right on the Chesapeake Bay.
Any siblings? What were you like as a kid?
I have two younger sisters and a younger half brother. I was pretty industrious, very motivated. I started working very young and always had my nose to the grindstone.
What were some of the jobs you had?
I think the first job was a paper route, and then I started working at Coldstone Creamery when I was 14; lots of free ice cream. Then I worked at a craft store, and when I turned 18 I started working at Whole Foods and I worked there off and on until I started this work. I also taught English abroad for a year and taught literature in a high school for a couple of years.
Did you go to college?
Yeah, I got accepted into the Maryland Institute College of Art and I was going to do an illustration undergrad, but I decided that wasn’t the right move and instead I went to school in New Mexico to study Spanish.
When did you start to get interested in environmental causes?
It probably started when I got interested in animal welfare. I went vegetarian when I was about 13 and started thinking about animals and our treatment of them. [Laughing] Full disclosure, I’ve eaten some meat and chicken since then, but I’m about 95% vegetarian. Anyway, that’s where it got started, and it snowballed from there. I realized that factory farms were really bad on a massive scale, not only for their treatment of animals but also really bad for the people who work in them and also for the environment. I started to see the interconnective nature of all of these issues and how the environment and our stewardship of it was tied in with human rights and the rights of other forms of life. I don’t remember when it was that I realized, “Oh, plastic never goes away.” and once I had that realization — that we didn’t have some perfect system where you throw it in a recycle bin and you crank out a new water bottle — is when I started getting serious about reducing waste before it happens.
One of your customers was saying that she was frustrated to see that most of our recycling just ends up in the trash trucks. What are some of the revelations that you came across?
One of the statistics that I came across was so crazy that I was like, “There’s no way that’s right” and then I did a very deep dive into the research about the history of waste and its treatment post-consumer and it was true. There was a study done, in 2015 I think, about the amount of plastic in the waste system. Only about 9% has actually been recycled. A further 11% is sent to incineration and the rest of it, 80%, ends up in landfills and in the environment. There was a statistic that about 8 tons of plastic goes into the oceans each year. There are many ways that we’re seeing the biological impact, animals on land and sea getting caught in the garbage or ingesting it, which is terrible. Gigantic trash islands forming and floating around, it’s just horrific when you see what’s happening. There are huge mounds floating around made from discarded clothing in the oceans, and it has long tentacles like jellyfish. Just last month there was big buzz about a study that found micro plastics in human blood for the first time.
I read about that. It was a small study but it said that half of the blood samples from the participants showed traces of PET plastic, used to make drink bottles, and a third had polystyrene, which is used for disposable food containers. The fear is that it could start to clog our organs. Previous research found we inhale and ingest enough microscopic pieces of plastic to create a credit card each week!
Yes, it’s quite pressing. Hopefully this store will help make people aware.
Tell me how you got started with Ray’s Reusables.
Well, it started at the end of 2019 as a passion project. I’d just left teaching and was home and looking at a pile of old jeans that I no longer wanted. I didn’t want to throw them out because I could see that there was plenty of usable fabric. One of the first gifts that someone had given me on my waste reduction journey was a cutlery pouch, so when I was out and about rather than using plastic utensils, I always had my own with me. So I took the denim and made pouches and tote bags and sold them at craft fairs and stuff. When Covid hit, I started making, selling and donating masks. It’s always been a goal of mine to make plastic-free options accessible and affordable to people regardless of where they live in the city. When the pandemic hit, we really took a step backwards in terms of the waste that we were producing, so I decided that I really needed to fast track my idea. I busted my buns making masks and even with donating a lot of masks to healthcare workers as well as a portion of the proceeds to places like Philabundance and West Philly Bunny Hop. I was able to save some money. With the help of my in-laws, I bought a used van and started traveling around the city with it providing refillable products, and that’s how Ray’s Reusables was born.
So people bring you containers or buy a reusable one from you and you refill everything from dish soap to body wash.
Yes, and I have environmentally friendly products for sale as well. Similar to what we have in the store, but of course we have room for a lot more here. My end goal was always to open up a store, and though I’m open for business now, the grand opening is going to be on April 23rd, the day after Earth Day!
Congratulations! What were some of the things that surprised you doing the truck runs?
I’m a low key kind of person, so it was amazing to make so many connections with people and see how invested they were. People were like, “Okay, Ray is only in my neighborhood for 4 hours once a month. I’m going to look at her schedule to make sure I connect with her.” People took a lot of time and effort to support me, and that was amazing. I was really humbled by that. It’s part of why I wanted to create a place where people can find the products at any time, not just for 4 hours at a random site. I still do the truck runs on Saturday mornings, but I’m training someone to take over.
You already seem to have quite a lot of people coming through, and it’s nice that you personally greet each one.
I try to learn the names of the people who make all this possible. I introduce myself and learn the names of everyone who comes in. [Laughing] That does not mean I’m going to remember them. I’m really bad at that, but at least I try! I’ll remember distinct details of a conversation we’ve had, but not your name.
People are welcome to bring their own containers to refill. I noticed that one woman brought an empty barbecue sauce bottle. What’s the strangest container you’ve seen used? [I stole that question from one of the customers who asked it while we were making small talk.]
Yes, as long as they’re clean and dry, people can bring whatever they want to use. I had one guy bring in the zip top type of peanut snack bag and used it to carry a bunch of toothpaste tablets that he bought, and there was a woman who brought in a ketchup bottle that she refilled with body wash. Very clever since you squeeze it and it comes out perfect. I had someone who brought in a little water bottle once. I think they didn’t have a container so they chugged their water bottle, cleaned and dried it and brought it in.
What was the most difficult part of getting the business off the ground?
Painting! I thought it would be easy but it took so much longer than I anticipated. This place was painted in vibrant blues and purples that I had to paint over.
What was your coming out story?
It took me a long time to come to terms with or even understand that I was bisexual. I realized when I was younger that I was attracted to women but I think I thought it was… I don’t know, fake? I didn’t know if I was just physically attracted or romantically interested, and I think I allowed that to dampen my expression of myself. Moving to Philly helped me because I grew up in a relatively conservative area, the Naval Academy, go figure, and as a result didn’t know any queer people. At Whole Foods here, I was on a team that was almost entirely queer. As far as the family goes, when I did tell everyone that I was bi, the response was, “Obviously!” and I was like, “Okay, there you go. That’s done.”
How did you meet your spouse?
We met online, I was getting ready to go teach in China and wasn’t really looking for anything serious but we hit it off and communicated the whole year I was away and then picked up when I got back, and now we’re married!
Favorite place to hang out in Philly?
It’s not so much where I go but what I like to do. I love to sit in coffee shops or take a cup of coffee to the park and just hang out. And I like to hang out at NextFab and make things.
Does the full moon affect you?
It definitely affected the kids when I was teaching so I’m sure it probably affected me too. Whenever the kids were acting up I’d check, and sure enough, it was usually a full moon.
Three of your favorite products in the store?
I really like the shampoo and conditioner bars and I didn’t expect to. So many people asked about them that I brought them in to try and now I love them and they’re a customer favorite too. I use the un-paper towels a lot in my everyday life and the Swedish dishcloths. I describe them as what would happen if a sponge and a washcloth had a baby.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I like to draw a lot; I do portraitures. And I recently discovered woodworking. I did some tables for the shop and the pegboards and I’m excited to do more now that I’m not as apprehensive about it. I also like to listen to True Crime podcasts and I enjoy reading.
If you had a podcast, what would it be called?
“A Collection of Tangents.” I would just go off on random tangents about things.
What sign are you and what traits of that sign do you have?
I’m what I like to call the ‘triple ram.’ Aries, year of the Ram, and my legal name means ewe. As you might imagine, I charge head first into things.
For more info: www.raysreusables.com/.