Chandler duo's

Nela Vascones, left, and Amy Liu-Sanders opened a pop-up store called Love Sustain Refill to help reduce the number of plastic containers polluting earth. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

Amy Liu-Sanders, a teacher in the Chandler Unified School District, and her friend Nela Vascones went to visit Vascones’ daughter in Colorado.

The problem is she lives in a special community that grows its own food and is very careful about the products they bring in. Residents don’t want any toxins to get into the groundwater that they use to grow their food.

That got both women interested in researching which everyday products have toxins that are both bad for the planet and bad for a person’s health.

That, and a trip by Vascones to a Colorado refill store led to an ah-ha moment: They decided to open their own refill store in the East Valley.

And they are well on their way to doing just that.

Love Sustain Refill is a pop-up store for now, appearing at farmers’ markets in Queen Creek, Mesa and Gilbert. Liu-Sanders said they are now confident there is demand for a brick-and-mortar store and will begin pursuing that.

They said the only refill store in the Valley is Desert Refillery in Central Phoenix.

So, what is a refill store?

Customers bring in their own empty bottles or containers, then weigh them. They write the weight on the bottle. Then, they can refill them with whatever product they need, taking as much, or as little as they like, paying by the ounce.

There are two major benefits. For one, instead of putting more plastic bottles into the oceans and landfills, people can reuse the ones they already have.

“I think it’s less than 10% of plastics that are actually being recycled,” Liu-Sanders said. “So it’s nasty. Americans are like only 5% of the population, and we create 40% of the waste. It’s gross.”

But that is not their top reason for opening this business. After their experience in Colorado, they became concerned about toxins in everyday products and started looking for alternatives. They were struggling to find them at the local stores.

She started using an app called Yuka, which tells users how healthy, or unhealthy, products are by scanning a barcode.

“A lot of them will score low if they have fragrances in them,” she said. “And preservatives. So those are two of the things that you have to watch out for.”

The two women personally test every product they sell, scrutinizing the ingredients to make sure there are no toxins. Their shop sells products for body, face and hair; laundry, the bathroom, kitchen and household goods.

Liu-Sanders said she likes the non-toxic products more than the mainstream brands. For example, she said she had bought a large container of laundry detergent just before making the switch. She said she is forcing herself to use that even though she prefers the brand she and Vascones sell, called Root & Splendor.

“I love it, it’s super amazing,” she said. “It gets out stains, it smells great, it softens your clothes. Like we’ve had such great feedback from our customers and I don’t want to use the rest of my other stuff up.”

They started attending farmers’ markets on Jan. 11 and say the reception has been terrific. This being a new concept, only one person brought empty containers to be filled that first day.

The store offers a bin of empty containers for those who don’t have their own that have been donated by other customers.

“We’re not trying to sell you something, we’re trying to educate,” Vascones said.

The pair said finding the products that are toxin-free has been the hardest challenge, but they’ve received a lot of help from other refill stores.

“What really helped us was going into other refill shops,” Liu-Sanders said. “You can see their brands, what their good sellers are, why they liked them. The refill community is such a welcoming community because the mission isn’t to beat out your competition, it’s ‘we need this’ and so they’re like ‘we need more of you.’”

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