a man on waves while riding a bicycle with a large storage compartment on the back
Matt Zimbalist of Re-Up Refill Shop on a delivery trip.

Q&A: For this environmentally conscious business, just one word — plastics

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Matt Zimbalist, 32, co-founded the Re-Up Refill Shop, which encourages consumers to cut down their use of single-use plastic containers. The site sells a range of household products, from cleansers to personal care items, in glass or reusable containers. Once the container is empty, the customer contacts the company for a refill, and a replacement is delivered by bicycle. Zimbalist opened the shop in April in a West Oakland eco-industrial park with his business partner and childhood friend Peter Lollo; his partner Carly Fishman is involved with marketing, a job she also holds at Urban Adamah. The team lives together in Oakland.

J.: You’ve combined your concern about the environment with everything you’ve done professionally thus far. How did this become your cause?

Matt Zimbalist: I had two formative classes my freshman year at Berkeley. One was a physics class that explained the science behind global warming, and the other was an ethnic studies class that exposed me to the entire world of racial and social justice and climate change. I was a “sponge-ish” 18-year-old, soaking it all up, and it started taking me on a journey. I then started gardening with the organic garden club at Berkeley and stayed on that path.

Before opening the Re-Up Refill Shop, you made a mark on Urban Adamah, Berkeley’s Jewish urban farm. What was your connection there?

I helped develop their current site and built certain structures there, like the star-shaped meeting spot in the fields. I had been farming in the Santa Cruz Mountains and got into building, because farms need infrastructure. I had a housemate that had gone to Tawonga and showed me the site manager job at Urban Adamah. I grew up in Encinitas as the only Jewish kid in my elementary school. My mom’s parents were Holocaust survivors and so our ethnic identity infused our world.

How did you come to open Re-Up?

I had gotten my contractor’s license but I was motivated to define my own path and wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to live my values rather than pushing someone else in that direction. I’m trying to live as ecological a life as possible, and I like sharing that value with the community and exposing people to a new way of consuming.

two bearded men in their 30s and one woman in her 30s stand smiling in a garage with rows of glass bottles on shelves behind them
Matt Zimbalist (right), Carly Fishman and Peter Lollo at the Re-Up Refill Shop in West Oakland.

How does the store work?

I describe it like the old-school milkman service, but you order online. You put out your empties and we come via electric bike, with reducing the use of single-use plastics being the main goal. We source many of our products locally and buy the largest size we can to minimize packaging. Even many of our vendors bring us their products in refillable containers. In our original business plan, customers could come refill things themselves, but now we do it and put them in a crate and return it. We’re also open two days a week for pickup. Our shop is an old shipping container.

Is this model financially sustainable?

We’ve already gotten three grants from Stop Waste, an Alameda County agency dedicated to reducing waste, to expand to businesses and co-ops. And we’re helping all of the businesses in our industrial park reduce and upcycle their own waste. We’re also taking all of the compost from these 20-plus businesses and will turn it into organic compost. We might become a nonprofit.

How do you explain to a skeptic that one person’s consumption can make a difference?

We’ve accepted that the way we consume is the only way consumption exists. This has been promoted by the beverage and plastic industries, which have been pushing us in that direction. Our goal is to reimagine what it looks like to consume. The refill concept is the way people want to shop, they just don’t know about it yet. We live with a finite amount of resources, and the more we learn about plastic, the more ubiquitous it is. Plastics are circulating throughout our airstreams, our water and oceans. We hope that people like the idea of having our products delivered by bike, because that also reduces air pollution.

What’s your delivery area and how can an East Bay J. reader become a customer?

We’re currently delivering from Albany into East Oakland. J. readers will get $10 off when they spend $25 or more on a first order using the code: THE-J. And of course, free bike delivery.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."