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A bluer shade of green: Reusable bags are out, but eco-friendly businesses press on with zero-waste goals

With a ban in Concord on self-service bulk food bins, employee Charles Pitetti fills bags of herbs and spices at Debra’s Natural Gourmet.
With a ban in Concord on self-service bulk food bins, employee Charles Pitetti fills bags of herbs and spices at Debra’s Natural Gourmet.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In February, the mother-daughter team of Gina DiGiovanni and Ashley Regan opened Green House Goods, a boutique in Newburyport specializing in low-waste, eco-friendly products and refillable liquid cleaning supplies.

With Gina’s retail experience and Ashley’s commitment to organic, sustainable living, the two looked forward to encouraging new customers to move closer to conducting a zero-waste, plastic-free lifestyle.

Then the virus arrived. A month after opening, Green House was closed. DiGiovanni watched in dismay as consumers cleared the shelves of chemical-based disinfecting wipes and supermarkets forbade customers from bringing in their own reusable bags.

“It was definitely two steps back in terms of big-picture progress,” DiGiovanni said recently.

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Concerns over the transmission of coronavirus have clearly put a damper on eco-friendly business, which felt like a growth industry just a few months ago, according to local shop owners.

In March, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration handed down orders about retail business that included a temporary ban on reusable bags and a temporary override of municipal bans on single-use plastic bags.

Sarah Levy, who owns Cleenland in Cambridge, has reduced her hours of operation, in part so she can make deliveries to customers who are trying to stay home as much as possible.

On a recent Tuesday, Levy was making her rounds in Arlington, Belmont, and Watertown, driving a truck equipped with all of her refillable liquid products.

“We don’t carry any disinfectants,” she said, talking on the phone from the driver’s seat. “Everything we carry works by breaking apart the bacteria and virus, not by killing on contact.” Some of her customers, she said, have told her they’ve been supplementing the cleaning products they buy from her with Clorox wipes.

Like the owners of Green House, Levy emphasizes that she’s not interested in “green shaming” – making a potential customer feel guilty about a lifestyle choice. Make the changes you’re comfortable with, they say. The trouble is, many of the positive changes people were making have been reversed by the pandemic.

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“The plastics and petrochemical industries are having an absolute field day, using the fear that’s natural around the pandemic to undo so much progress that’s been made,” Levy said.

To Levy, some of the guidelines we’ve been asked to follow to combat the virus have been troublesome.

“I understand not asking essential workers to touch people’s bags,” she said. But what if she brings her own reusable bags to the store and fills them herself?

And don’t get her started on disposable gloves.

“I fully understand people’s fear,” she said. “But if you put gloves on, then touch a handle, then take out your wallet – it doesn’t make any sense.”

At Debra’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, the local Board of Health instituted a ban on customers filling their own containers at the store’s popular bulk food bins. That forced the staff to stock a lot more pre-packaged product.

“We had to put yellow tape on the bins,” said Debra Stark, who opened the store in 1989. “Our customers don’t want plastic packaging. They want to tread more lightly on the earth.”

The former self-service herb and spice section at Debra's Natural Gourmet in Concord is now blocked off by yellow caution tape.
The former self-service herb and spice section at Debra's Natural Gourmet in Concord is now blocked off by yellow caution tape. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Even with the logistical problems presented by the virus, Debra’s is thriving. The store just announced it has purchased the building next door that currently houses the West Concord 5 & 10, another beloved local institution. When the Forbes family, which has operated that business for nearly 70 years, closes the doors for good next January, the health food store will begin implementing a plan to expand into the space.

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In the meantime, Stark and her staff have been working diligently to ensure their customers have a clean, safe shopping environment.

“In the beginning, everyone was just fearful for their lives,” she said. “We decided not to get the traditional virus killers. Most of them, in my belief, are not safe – they’re harmful to our health in other ways.” Stark said the store spent “a couple thousand dollars” sourcing pure isopropyl alcohol from an animal hospital in California, the only place they could find it. Debra’s made its own hand sanitizer, which it’s been selling in bulk.

Before the pandemic, the store had a rewards program for customers who brought their own bags. Now, with shoppers forbidden to do so, Debra’s has been using more paper bags and cardboard boxes.

“That really frosts my boots,” Stark said. “One of the things on my list this week is to write to the governor’s office about that.”

In Newburyport, DiGiovanni and her daughter reopened Green House Goods in early June and have been pleased with the turnout. A recent weekend “was incredible, a mix of locals and tourists,” DiGiovanni said.

That’s a major mood swing from the day in March when she first locked up due to the governor’s stay-at-home advisory.

“I was petrified,” she recalled. But then she and Ashley got to work filling orders for curbside pickup.

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“Within a week, I realized, ‘Oh, we might get through this.’”

Levy, who just marked the one-year anniversary of Cleenland, is cautiously optimistic about the future.

“We were definitely in expansion mode” before the shutdown, she said. “We’re still getting some new folks, but at a much slower rate.

“I understand – now is not the time to expand your horizons.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

Gina DiGivanni (right), and her daughter Ashley (holding her daughter Mae) inside the Green House Goods store in early March before the pandemic forced a temporary shutdown of the store.
Gina DiGivanni (right), and her daughter Ashley (holding her daughter Mae) inside the Green House Goods store in early March before the pandemic forced a temporary shutdown of the store.Jim Davis/Globe Staff