Reimagining a Package-Free Lifestyle — Katerina Bogatireva

The decision to open Precycle, her reduced-waste bulk goods store, was less of a lightbulb moment for Katerina Bogatireva, and more of a phototropic one; a movement of growth toward the light — a more sustainable future — that looks to long-term solutions rather than a “quick fix” mentality.

Katerina grew up in Riga, Latvia, then still under Soviet rule, in an era of empty shelves and scarce supplies. She moved to the United States in 2000, settling in Brooklyn and paying her way by working various jobs, but her inner entrepreneur kept calling to her. Katerina’s mother, Beatrise, was a huge inspiration for her, a kindred entrepreneurial spirit. Beatrise opened a language school, one of the first post-Soviet private businesses in Riga, in 1989. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Katerina opened her first business in 2005. She started designing and selling jewelry at local retail and wholesale shows, and eventually opened her own gallery, Bijoutique, in Brooklyn. In 2014, Katerina decided to close her art business to refocus on other parts of her life. She started to notice the overwhelming consumerist and disposable culture in which we live. With this in mind, Katerina began strategizing a new entrepreneurial idea.

I started making a lot more effort in my own household that pertained to how I was shopping, what I was buying, and conscious consumer habits. That’s what I was going for. Eventually, that led me to think about the ideal store, for myself, and for people who have similar feelings toward wanting to be more eco-friendly.

In 2015, after learning about sustainability in his kindergarten class, Katerina’s son came home and asked, “Mommy, do you know how long plastic will remain in the landfill?”

That really made me think about things. I remember that day taking a very different look at my trash can and thinking to myself, “I’m not a very wasteful person, but that’s a lot for two people.” It sort of started my journey toward minimizing my own household waste, and what might be avoided. When I realized that a lot of it is actually connected to food — most of it, really — I guess that was the beginning. I was always very interested in sustainability, but I started thinking about how we’re going to leave the planet to the next generations. And, you know, we’re not doing such a great job. So I wanted to be part of the solution.

Katerina’s journey from the first concept of Precycle to opening the store took three and a half years. A marathon rather than a sprint, but most definitely one worth working for. Katerina faced challenges with the New York City real estate market, as landlords were leery of unproven businesses, but she was tenacious and resolute. In December 2018 Precycle opened its doors in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Curious customers from Brooklyn and beyond began flocking to Precycle. Katerina considers her store a local community-driven business for the most part, but says that people travel from further afield, from Manhattan and even Connecticut, to shop sustainably at her store.

Precycle’s business model involves customers bringing their own refillable containers to the store, recording the tare weight, then using the dispensers to buy however much they want. Customers purchase the goods they need at lower, bulk prices, and replace the disposable with the reusable. Packaging is a necessity for certain goods that Precycle receives into the store, especially such items as toothbrushes, which — let’s be honest — people are not going to want to buy from a bulk bin! Nevertheless, Katerina insists on packaging that is reusable, garden compostable, or at the very least recyclable. A few food products, such as dried apricots, require plastic packaging to keep out pests and humidity so as not to ruin the product. Not only does Katerina keep this use of plastic to a minimum, she also invests in Zero Waste Boxes from TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based company that recycles materials that are traditionally hard to work with — soft plastics, diapers, and even cigarette butts. In its first year of operation, Precycle produced only five bags of garbage in total. The average American tosses out 4.5 pounds of trash per day, but this revolutionary store managed to go an entire year throwing out just a tiny fraction of that.

The pandemic definitely contributed to more waste due to masks and disposable gloves, but Precycle is still far ahead of the curve. Earlier this year, Precycle was designated B Corp status, a hard-earned and highly vaunted certification measuring a company’s social and environmental impact.

It’s a validation. It’s not easy to get this certification. But during the process, I think it made us think about our operations in a critical way where we can change things that are not working and maybe make them better. I think it helped us improve our operations and learn through that. And yeah, going forward, I think it’s going to be very good. It’s a seal of approval. I personally always prefer to work with certified B Corps when it comes to finding products because I know what they’ve been through, because I’ve been through it myself … I know it’s not just greenwashing; it’s a proven process.

Precycle stocks dried goods such as heirloom beans and grains, household items like shampoo and laundry detergent, and also rotating seasonal produce. The few exceptions to stocking seasonal produce are foods that don’t grow locally in New York: bananas, avocados, citrus, and so on. Aside from those items, Precycle prides itself on being locally driven. Katerina currently works with a regional farm co-op (cooperative, or member-owned organizational structure), sourcing organic wherever possible, and looks forward to having direct connections with farmers in the future.

We try to source mostly organic, but when it comes to produce, we are working with a farm co-op that works with smaller farms, a lot of whom practice organic growing but don’t necessarily have the certification because it’s something that is quite costly and labor-intensive to acquire. So, although maybe they’re not certified organic, they come from small farms, local farms, etc. Again, our priorities are sourcing locally for pantry, dry goods, and all the personal care and household items.

When asked about what some of her favorite goods she sells at the store are, Katerina laughs.

Personally, I love all of them. They’re all my babies. But I have to say one of my favorites, which happens very rarely, as their season is very short, is wild ramps … I’m very excited to have that one week where you can enjoy them. It’s such a delicate flavor.

As Katerina says, ramps have a limited season, so harvesting them sustainably is of paramount importance. Rather than harvesting the entire plant, including the bulb, as many foragers do, Katerina’s sources take cuts of the upper leaves and leave the bulbs in the ground to grow for seasons to come.

I also really like Brooklyn-made granolas. We have a black truffle granola that’s my go-to snack.

Katerina is clearly a leader in the battle against a “throw-away society,” and would like to see a reduction of not just disposable packaging, but also of the shameful amount of unnecessary food waste we’re faced with. Due to its immense emissions of methane, which has 26 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, food waste is a major contributor to climate change. According to the American Journal of Agricultural Economists, the average American wastes 31.9% of their food. In New York City alone, The National Resources Defense Council reports that the average household disposes of 8.4 pounds of food waste per week (with 5.4 pounds of that still considered edible). Katerina, and hopefully many more ecologically-minded community members and progressive business owners, are trying to find a way to push back against this.

It’s a huge problem, and one that can be easily solved and even become a resource. There’s a few ways that we can use that waste; [the] first is to make compost, then soil, and then [another option] is to just use it to generate electricity.

The future for our planet may be unsure, holding more questions than certainties, but following the lead of Katerina and other eco-warriors, who knows? It might just be bright.

Conversations with Jo Eike. Written by Jo Eike. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.

Page design by Emily Hartwig.