Desert Rose Collective, 135 S. 5th Ave., Tucson, Ariz., April 29, 2022. 

From sustainable homes to repair cafes, the zero-waste movement continues to expand its eco-friendly reach across Tucson with a new type of green shop popping up in recent years — refilleries.

Zero-waste refilleries allow individuals to bring in reusable containers to refill with environmentally-friendly products, including soaps, shampoos and conditioners, laundry detergent and cleaning products.

The goal? Help reduce waste sent to landfills by cutting back on plastic usage, says local refillery owner Alena Straus.

In the last three years, Tucson has seen a growth in refilleries and sustainable shops, including Cero, which started in 2019, and Straus’ shop, Desert Rose Collective, which opened right around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Desert Rose Collective initially opened its doors near South Stone Avenue and East McCormick Street but recently moved to its current downtown location at 135 S. Fifth Ave., an area with more foot traffic leading to more accessibility for others to live more sustainably.

“(I want to) help people get around the stigma of zero-waste and eco-friendly, because I think that if you say, you know, ‘zero-waste’ people kind of have like a knee-jerk reaction,” says Straus, who is both vegan and zero-waste herself. “Sometimes it's like, ‘Oh, that's so hard’ or, ‘Oh, you know, you're like elitist’ in some kind of way. So helping people understand that it's like really quite easy and you can just, like, save your pasta jars and start with whatever you want to start with. So (it’s about) just giving people an approachable starting point.”

Desert Rose Collective offers more than just refilling stations at its brick-and-mortar location. They offer biodegradable loofahs, shampoo and conditioner bars, laundry detergent pods and handmade soap from local soapmaker Gigglestars Soap Co

Desert Rose Collective, 135 S. 5th Ave., Tucson, Ariz., April 29, 2022. 

One of the more unique items at the shop includes an environmentally-friendly alternative to paper towels — a Swedish dishcloth composed of cellulose and cotton that you can wash up to 200 times in the washing machine or dishwasher. The reusable dishcloth can save up to 17 rolls of paper towels, according to Desert Rose Collective’s website.

But if you just want to stop by for a quick refill on your favorite cleaning product or shampoo, they can do that, too. Just bring whatever reusable container you have on hand, Straus says.

The 25-year-old shop owner has filled everything from amber jars to Dial soap dispensers to even a regular coffee mug. 

“We have mostly closed-loop refill options,” Straus says. “So that's going to be your big carboys (large containers) full of shampoo, conditioner, floor cleaner, glass cleaner, dish soap, all that kind of stuff that people can refill in their own containers. So through those means, we're kind of attacking, and hopefully helping people cut back on, their plastic use.”

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, “landfills received 27 million tons of plastic” in 2018.

Refilling the family legacy 🚰

Although Straus isn’t a native Tucsonan, her father and his family are from the Old Pueblo, making Tucson a place she holds near and dear to her heart. She moved to Tucson from Boulder, Colorado in 2019.

“I was always kind of in love with the area and started visiting here as an adult again after my grandma had passed. And it's just so cool here and it's a great place to start a business too. There's a ton of resources here,” Straus says. “And I always had wanted to move to Tucson and I knew that there was a need for it (refilleries) here. So I brought it with me.”

While working at a zero-waste shop in Boulder, Straus saw the community’s “affluent” people live sustainable lives with ease due to their financial status, which made Straus decide that living sustainably shouldn’t be a hard bubble to burst into.

Alena Straus takes a look at Trav Beardsley's phone during the premier Final Friday event at her shop Desert Rose Collective, 135 S. 5th Ave., Tucson, Ariz., April 29, 2022.

“That was kind of my lens of like, I want to make this something that more people can participate in and that there's not as much of a bar to entry as far as, like, pricing goes,” Straus says. “So I do try to, like, find and keep brands in stock that are more affordable options... But yeah, that was kind of the bigger focus for me was, you know, bringing it to more people.”

Straus comes from a line of family-run businesses in Tucson. Throughout the 1950s to the 1970s, her grandfather, Milton Straus, operated a warehouse near East Toole and North Stone avenues that distributed beers, including Pabst. The warehouse offered a “bottle take back and collection service,” Straus said in a follow-up email. “So, in a way, closed-loop (recycling) and refills have been a family legacy.”

So, picking up where her ancestors left off came naturally when Straus opened Desert Rose Collective in 2020.

The name “Desert Rose Collective” was inspired by the work of local artist Marcy Ellis, who creates artwork inspired by “flora, the natural world, and the femme,” according to her Etsy page. Straus decided “collective” was the best addition to the name “Desert Rose” as she had plans for collaborating with other local, sustainable businesses before the pandemic struck.

“A lot of people asked like, ‘So is it a cooperative? What does that mean?’ And originally, the idea was that the collective would be kind of an umbrella, under which I could welcome in other sustainable businesses,” Straus says. “But then I signed my lease and COVID hits, I was like, ‘OK, well, I just need to do whatever I can do to open and then figure out the rest later.’ So I'm still working on the ‘figuring out the rest’ part.”

Trav Beardsley gets a glamour shot of the shop cat, Papaya during the first Final Friday event at Desert Rose Collective, Tucson, Ariz., April 29, 2022.

Alena, Kala and Papaya 🐶🐱

When chatting with Straus about the shop, she uses terms like “we” and “us,” and one could easily assume that she is referring to the employees who help her keep the shop afloat.

While the shop does have two other “employees,” they’re not your typical workers.

You can find one of them occasionally knocking over three full-gallon containers of dish soap allover the shop floor, and another employee taking a nap during the workday or at the shop’s monthly events.

These two employees are Straus’ furry companions and shop pets, Papaya, the “sassy” cat, and Kala, the “shy” dog, who you will probably see when visiting the downtown shop.

Shop dog Kala gets in a quick nap during the first Final Friday event at Desert Rose Collective, Tucson, Ariz., April 29, 2022.

“We have the cutest pets in the world that work for us,” Straus says. “I think it's a good icebreaker. And because I'm not necessarily an extrovert, being in, like, the shopkeeping realm is a challenge sometimes, but having the kids around, you know, it gives us something to talk about.”

But you can talk about more than just the furry friends at Desert Rose Collective, especially during the new Final Fridays monthly events that Straus hosts at the shop.

On the last Friday of each month this summer, Desert Rose Collective will host a sustainable business and educator to help shine a spotlight on living sustainably in the community. There’s also some form of music and snacks at the free monthly event.

“It's kind of like a networking opportunity for people to come and meet other sustainable people,” Straus says. “And then just kind of have fun and shop or listen to music or whatever it is that you're coming for.”

The new monthly events aren’t the only thing coming to Desert Rose Collective this summer. Straus plans to start selling her own sustainable vegan skincare line, including a salve and all-purpose oil, this summer too.

“I spend my life in this world so I think that it's important on like a very micro level of like, ‘What am I putting on my body? What am I consuming? What am I cleaning with? What are my pets going to be smelling on the floor?’ That part of it is like very micro and very important of making sure you're getting clean, good products,” Straus says. “And then at a macro level, of course, like keeping plastic out of the landfills... But I would also say that I think more and more people are voting with their dollars and understanding that what is local matters, what's sustainable matters.”

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Digital Features Reporter

Elvia is a journalism and history graduate from the University of Arizona. She hopes to create stories that show what makes Tucson and its community special.