The new normal: a green, upcycled and circular economy?

Founded by its two owners, Karianne Silverman and Lindsay Melnyk, the Darling Electric hair salon has a green business model that seeks to recycle 97% of its waste. Credit: Pete Rosos

BERKELEYSIDE — Environmentally savvy Californians are likely familiar with the phrase “reduce, recycle, reuse,” but what might surprise our community are the novel ways Berkeley businesses are creating new value from waste. 

In the lead up to Earth Day, we talked to the owners of two Berkeley storefront businesses — Darling Electric Salon and Indigo Vintage — and one deep-tech innovator, Opus 12, about how they are taking environmental preservation into their own hands.

Environmental practices in hair styling pose extra challenges

“Climate change is incredibly overwhelming. We just feel like starting where we can, which is at our business,” said Karianne Silverman, co-owner and stylist at Darling Electric hair salon.

When Darling Electric co-owners Silverman and Lindsay Melnyk created their salon in September 2019, they knew they wanted to use eco-friendly practices as they provided top-tier styling to clients. In addition, Silverman had just become allergic to one of the components in the color line she used and was “on a journey to find products that were clean.” 

Darling Electric uses OWAY products, which are organic and packaged in nonplastic recyclable containers made of aluminum or glass — better for both the people who use them and the environment. “Clients can bring in their old containers to refill them with products to cut down on waste as well,” Silverman said. And when it comes to informing clients about the opportunity for eco-friendly products, Silverman and Melnyk have found an eager audience.

“Our job is made a little easier because we’re in Berkeley and people are curious,” Melnyk elaborated. “Customers ask questions about the health and environmental impacts of the products the salon uses… We don’t even usually have to be the ones who bring it up.”

There are lots of things stylists can’t reuse or recycle because of chemical contamination or hygiene standards, but Darling Electric has found a solution for those too. They’ve partnered with Green Circle Salons, which diverts waste from landfills by breaking down beauty industry waste (excess dye, cotton, plastic wrap, gloves, PPE, etc.) – and turning the components, such as water and oil, into fuel, shampoo bottles, construction materials and other useful everyday products. The amount of waste that we’ve eliminated through that relationship “is pretty stunning,” Silverman said. “Green Circle Salons even takes our waste hair trimmings and turns them into garbage cans!”

Melnyk and Silverman aren’t alone in their mission to green the beauty industry. As they’ve taken steps to become a California certified green business, they’ve found like-minded salon owners in Berkeley and beyond. And while they’ve seen a trend in past few years of salons being more focused on being safe and sustainable, the widespread interest in greener practices isn’t limited to the beauty industry. 

Pooling resources to sell vintage clothing

Indigo Clothing Cooperative is a collection of vintage clothing collectors selling their wares in three different locations, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, April 21, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Mel Willis at Indigo Clothing Cooperative, a hub for vintage clothing vendors. Credit: Pete Rosos

When Mel Willis started Indigo Vintage in 2018, she discovered a broad community of secondhand and vintage clothing vendors excited to band together for the environment. After the first shop opened in Berkeley, two more locations in San Francisco and Santa Cruz soon followed.

“I think the future is for small businesses to band together and share resources,” Willis said. “Each business doesn’t have to run its own power… instead we house almost 50 vendors under three different roofs.”

Willis is seeking green business certification at all of Indigo Vintage’s locations, but the Berkeley flagship store is first on her list. While the secondhand clothing industry is inherently eco-friendly, she challenges herself and her colleagues to take additional steps toward sustainability. Much of the furniture in every store was scavenged secondhand from Facebook Marketplace or Goodwill, or made from old wooden pallets.

“We’re doing this, but what can we do better?” Willis asks regularly. 

Indigo Vintage is also spreading sustainability through education. When shoppers buy from Indigo Vintage vendors, they are encouraged to “prolong [sustainability] past the purchase” by donating the item when they’re done with it or finding a way to resell it, Willis said.

Making chemicals and fuels that are better for the planet

A worker in a lab at Opus 12 in Berkeley
Working in the West Berkeley lab at Opus 12, 2019 (pre-COVID). Credit: Opus 12

Over in West Berkeley, the engineering company Opus 12 is tackling environmental issues on a much grander scale. The chemists and researchers who founded the company created an electrode that, when inserted into a reactor, breaks down carbon dioxide and water and recombines the molecular pieces to form chemical building blocks for lots of other things. For example, the firm has already partnered with firms like Mercedes Benz to make materials for auto parts and the US Air Force to make jet fuel from CO2 and water.

“Instead of throwing away carbon dioxide [into the atmosphere], our technology can recapture it and put it to work,” said Etosha Cave, an Opus 12 co-founder.

The company is currently taking a “ground-up approach” to make chemicals and fuels that are better for the planet, and Cave would love to someday see Opus 12 be as large as any oil or gas company. For now, more than 40 employees are working hard to refine its core electrode technology and expand its business partnerships.

All three of these Berkeley businesses are proving on a daily basis that it is possible to combine commerce and science with environmental leadership, not only greening their own business practices, but making it easier for others to reduce their environmental footprint without having to forgo fashion, style or mobility. 

This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED helps entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley and thrive. 

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