Originally published in encore magazine, March 3, 2020
In February Wilmingtonian Lindsey McCoy documented her journey with Exxpedition, an ongoing two-year plastic exploration by sailboat across the world’s oceans. Led by ocean advocate Emily Penn, who founded Exxpedition in 2014, the 2019-2021 venture is broken up into 30 voyages starting and ending in the United Kingdom. McCoy is among 300 women (selected from 10,000 applicants) to go to sea for a first-hand look at the global single-use plastics crisis.
“We were taking samples in the ocean from the surface and also 75 feet down [where] these little speckles came up on the filter,” she says. “That’s microplastic, we can’t clean that up. And that’s the problem: So many people cannot have that experience, they don’t see it in person.”
McCoy is a board member of Wilmington’s Plastic Ocean Project and veteran of environmental education. As such, this venture didn’t come as a revelation to her. Her resolve to combat plastic waste began long ago. From 2005-15 McCoy supervised an environmental education nonprofit in the Bahamas, where she literally saw single-use plastic everywhere: water, beaches and roads.
“They don’t have the same infrastructure that we have in the U.S. to sort of ‘make things disappear,’” she explains. “So, I started doing things like carrying reusable bags, water bottles and reducing plastic use overall.”
But McCoy couldn’t find a solution that worked for her in the shower, i.e. replacing plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles. So she set out to find her own. Though McCoy has used bar shampoos (locally, folks can find them in Wilmington stores like Tidal Creek and Whole Foods), but wanted something better. “For some people shampoo bars work great,” she says, “and they should definitely use them but they just didn’t agree with my hair.”
Around the same time in 2015, McCoy and her husband were planning their move back stateside. They decided on Wilmington’s coastal community versus landlocked Ohio, where McCoy’s sister, Alison Webster, is based. Still, the sisters set out to help find a solution to shampoo plastic bottle pollution. After two years of research and product samples, they launched Plaine Products (the sisters’ maiden name is Delaplaine) in February 2017.
Plaine Products also are sold at 50 stores nationally, with the nearest retailers in Charlotte or Virginia. However, they’re mainly subscription-based; people can buy individual items or bundles of merchandise at a discount. It’s a model consumers have invested in to have everything delivered to their doorstep.
All of the product shipping, receiving, auto cleaning, ordering and inventory management is handled by Webster in Plaine Products’ Ohio base, while McCoy handles sales, marketing, finances and partnerships in Wilmington. The two balance each other out. “[Alison] is a perfectionist and never would have launched anything, and I would have launched six months too early,” McCoy says.
Working with a Florida-based manufacturer, Plaine Products are paraben- and sulfate-free, vegan and biodegradable shampoos, conditioners, lotions, hand soaps packaged in aluminum bottles, which can be recycled without quality loss. This means it can be made into new aluminum products an infinite number of times, while recycled plastic is downgraded and can only be recycled at most twice.
“Plastic lasts forever—one of its wonderful qualities,” McCoy says, sarcastically, “but it doesn’t make sense when you use something for a little bit. . . . We’re working on adding new products to the line all the time. Because the more we have, the more opportunities for people to use less plastic.”
Right now the most complicated or misunderstood part of their subscription-based process is knowing when to expect refills versus when to send back empty bottles. When running low, subscribers can schedule their replacements to have in time before sending the empties back in their reusable shipping boxes made by EcoEnclose.
“We are working on reusing other parts, too, so we’ve redesigned our boxes,” McCoy says. “They don’t have fill in them, as they’re designed to just hold the bottles with a little cardboard insert, so we can just keep reusing those.”
It’s taken a while to figure out how to have refill stations at stores without a lot of single-use plastic. Often times these situations call for white plastic 10-gallon jugs, which can’t be reused. “So, we finally figured out we’re gonna just use 3-and-a-half-gallon paint buckets we can wash and reuse,” McCoy explains. “We can, hopefully, in the next month or two launch a bulk option for stores.”
Nowadays most everything comes in plastic packaging of some kind that cannot be reused or even recycled. Nevertheless, plastic-free options are on the rise, especially with bathroom products like these.
“I think we got really lucky on the timing when we launched,” McCoy notes. “I do think people are starting to realize that this convenience and disposability we were sold as miracles to change our lives [has] consequences. There are costs we’re not paying right now that future generations are going to be paying, and we have to take a hard look at the choices that we’re making.”
Thus plastic-free solutions and alternative packaging for shampoo bottles are here—some even come in clever cardboard biodegradable packaging with seeds—they’re just often more expensive. McCoy recognizes that fact. Even though a 16-ounce Plaine shampoo bottle might last three or four months for two people, it’s still $30.
“It’s way more than I ever paid for shampoo,” she admits. “Unfortunately, that’s just the reality of not putting a bunch of chemicals in a plastic bottle.”
Rather than ask why plastic-free items are so expensive, McCoy thinks the question should be, “Why is the other stuff so cheap?”
Plaine Products are not water-based like competitors traditionally put on store shelves. They’re aloe-based in a concentrated formula and designed for consumers to use less per wash. Actually, Plaine purposefully uses a smaller pump to avoid dumping more shampoo (by accident or otherwise) than necessary.
“It is more expensive to take responsibility for your packaging [as a business],” McCoy adds. “We have to pay to ship the bottles back, we have to pay to clean them and reuse them—and that is more expensive than a plastic bottle. Because those [plastic-based] companies don’t have to take don’t have to take responsibility for that.”