Oakland’s MudLab Tackles Waste
The Luxury of ‘For Here’
At MudLab, Oakland’s new zero-waste grocery
store, it’s all about slowing down to tackle waste
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
An energetic 34-year-old runner, Vanessa Pope talks a lot about slowing down, which is surprising at first, given her passions for taking on the crisis of trash.
In 2019 alone, she led dozens of trash pick-up parties around Lake Merritt; published a sustainability oriented book on dating and arranged singles meet-ups at local “green” businesses; started For Here, Please, a nonprofit dedicated to disrupting to-go culture; opened MudLab, a zero-waste grocery and meeting hub; and generally and gently beseeched everyone within her sphere to slow down and learn how to save the big human party on the planet from going down under a mountain of trash. Coffee helps. But Pope will take it “for here.” Or she’ll bring a reusable mug, and she hopes you will, too.
“Helping people buy items in reusable containers and remember [to use] their reusables is resonating,” this optimist says one recent afternoon when asked how it’s all working out at MudLab, her group’s self-styled and notably hand-assembled retail shop next to MacArthur BART. Customers here slow down with hot tea served in a recycled glass jar nestled in a hot-cup sleeve made of stitched-together scraps from Oakland clothing manufacturer Cotton Basics. They might also enjoy fresh wholegrain baked goods or carry them away packed in reusable glass jars or wrapped in similar Cotton Basics cloth scraps. They can shop for a whole host of mostly local, mostly handmade sustainability-themed goods like cloth bags for any need, terracotta seed-sprouting trays, bamboo toothbrushes, packable bamboo eating utensils, furniture made from used paper cups and mycelium, Community Grains pasta, fully compostable Verterra serving ware (made from fallen leaves), and plenty more.
Bringing the Luxury of ‘For Here’ to All People
Some folks might just drop in to relax and chat about zero waste (or whatever’s on their mind) with Pope or helper Ethan Leon. There’s always a seat at the long, reclaimed-redwood slab, which serves any duty from tea table to display table or co-working station. Artwork, books, and charts give MudLab the feel of a classroom, and in essence, that’s what it is, along with event hub, gallery, and whatever else serves the nonprofit’s goal of bringing “the luxury of the ‘for here’ experience to all people.”
Intended to stand out, the word “luxury” is key to Pope’s ideas for reducing one’s carbon footprint. Luxuries might include having time, energy, health, and a bike (plus path access) so you can ditch the car; having time to sit down at a restaurant and enjoy a meal slowly; having time to wash and pack up reusables each day; having the money to support local makers.
“All of these things are expensive, and most require big up-front investments even if they are less costly over the long term,” says Pope. “In addition, having the education and wherewithal to know about sustainability and the head-space to make it a priority. These are also luxuries when you think about the million things that people do each day to support their families, children, etc. When someone has a minimum wage job, sustainability often takes a back seat. Therefore, at MudLab we try to make sustainability affordable and accessible, even to people who are in a rush, on a budget, or not prioritizing the planet at the moment.”
A role model for Pope and For Here, Please (FHP) has been J Moses Ceaser’s New Parkway Theater (474 24th Street, Oakland), which touts itself online as “quite possibly the greenest movie theater in the world,” with nearly every service item being reusable. FHP wants to push that model out to local businesses ready to phase out single-use items and perhaps also embrace New Parkway’s ethics of hiring neighborhood locals, paying a living wage, and providing a welcoming community environment that’s accessible to all.
FHP’s first and proudest success has been at Perch (440 Grand Avenue in Oakland), a coffeeshop they convinced to go completely plastic-free. “They were the first we talked to, and they said, ‘let’s try it.’” A map at forhereplease.com currently shows seven other nearby businesses (including Farley’s East, Arizmendi, and Beauty’s Bagels) making similar progress toward eliminating plastics and other single-use items.
Options for Commuters and Teens
MudLab’s location near a transportation hub is important. A commuter headed to work could say, “‘I forgot my mug and I know I can get one here,’” says Pope. Her other job is as a baker at Oliveto (located near Rockridge BART), where she helps owner Bob Klein with his local grain initiative called Community Grains (CG) and also makes items for MudLab with CG flour, like the wholegrain protein bars she packs in mason jars. “People can grab one and then bring it back so we refill it, and they get something quick and healthy on their way to work.” She’s approached Mandela Grocery (located near West Oakland BART) about becoming another such hub. “The idea is to have a line of commuter products in reusable containers to sell at all three stops.”
But it’s not just about commuters. “There are a couple high schools in this neighborhood,” says this former Castlemont High School teacher. “I try to bring in the teens by telling a joke outside the door and saying like, ‘hey come in and try our food.’ One thing that was so upsetting [at Castlemont] was seeing the junk food they eat all day. Not just junk food, but over-processed, expensive junk food in plastic packaging. We have to do better for our teens.”
Pope wants to reach anyone concerned about the trash problem, but who might feel stuck in knowing where to start or how to be effective. Everything ordered online comes in plastic packaging, so she looks for what the shop can order in bulk. “We can do things as a community, and everything is more affordable.” FHP did a recent trial with a big wheel of cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. They cut it up at the farmers’ market and passed out pieces wrapped in paper or dropped them into people’s reusable containers.
Pope collaborates daily with FHP co-founder Sara Mae Heady (who also works for First Fridays), gets occasional help from fellow sustainability enthusiast Michael Holmes, and benefits greatly from an actual angel investor, her late mother Sheila Carmody, a poet and English professor, who left Pope with over 1,000 books and countless examples of how to volunteer in ways that make the world a better, more caring place.
Pope reveals her broader hopes as she explains how the word “mud” in MudLab covers a lot of ground … literally. “It’s another word for coffee, which is how we got started.” Then she makes the leap to mud as soil: “MudLab combines what we hope will be a movement towards more sustainable coffee consumption, but also investment in farms, farmers, and producers who use regenerative ag, crop rotation, biodynamic farming, no-till methods, and other soil-supportive methods.”
Leaving MudLab, this writer waded through a headful of questions about how an idealist like Pope succeeds with scaling up all these intentions.
“We promote For Here, Please across the country by visiting cafés and networking with other zero-waste advocates. A lot of the time, folks from far off contact me for help setting up similar systems or sourcing products.
“However, we really want to reiterate that sustainability—and in particular behavioral change—is hard, and it takes months or years for people to adjust to having to remember their reusables or slow down and drink at the cafe. A lot of stakeholders are involved, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I try, whenever I do talk to someone in another city or state, to drive home the fact that solutions to waste at cafés and restaurants have to be specifically designed with neighborhood, economics, clientele, and such in mind.” ♦