NoLibs shop guides customers both new and experienced in zero-waste choices


Soft-spoken Ray Daly, the founding owner of Ray’s Reusables, is on a zero-waste mission. But her approach is more supportive sherpa than zealous missionary. While noting on her website that only 9% of the 8.3 billion pounds of plastic produced before 2019 have been recycled — leaving billions in landfills or the oceans — Daly’s response is not to panic but to provide alternatives. The thoughtfully curated household, personal care and gift selections she offers make it easy for consumers to support local makers, buy eco-friendly items and reduce packaging waste by refilling reusable containers with bulk products.

Daly’s customers seem to get her supportive vibe. Recently, one gift-seeking customer burst into the shop with an urgent request: “Can you guide me to buy some candles?”

It wasn’t a question of locating the candles (the store is fewer than 900 square feet), but of being coached on the subtle differences among them: made from beeswax or soy, from a local company or a specific mission-driven producer. Candles in hand, the customer asked for advice on some additional gifts. Daly directed her to one of the products made in-house: shower steamers. The combination of essential oils and salts are the shower equivalent of a bath bomb. Exit one happy customer.

Interactions like these are one way Daly measures success. Sales numbers matter, along with tracking refill ounces, how much plastic is diverted and how much glass is kept out of landfills. But it’s her customers’ happiness, “when they tell me, ‘I’m so glad you’re here,’” that tops her list of success metrics and makes the difficult days easier to bear.

Ray Daly helps customers get the product without the throwaway packaging. Photo by Chris Baker Evens.

Daly’s own journey toward a sustainable lifestyle began decades ago when, as a middle schooler, she learned about factory farming. She became a vegetarian in response, choosing the diet she still prefers today. Another major influence came during her ten years working for Whole Foods Market, where she became interested in reduced packaging, recycling and composting. A year spent in China teaching English left her impressed by the legions of older workers maintaining litter-free streets, but shocked by the excessive amount of packaging. She began making the connection between packaging and litter in the U.S. Eventually, her combined interests led her to formulate a simple statement as the foundation of her business: “Here at Ray’s Reusables we are on a mission to help people reduce the amount of waste in their lives.”

Initially, Daly launched her business as a pop-up “refillery,” driving a van laden with vats of popular items such as spray cleaner, shampoo, conditioner and dishwasher pods to craft fairs as well as the Clark Park and East Falls farmers markets. She credits her “diehard” early customers whose “fervent support” showed that demand for refillables was real. When the pandemic hit, one month after she’d given notice at Whole Foods and all the craft events she’d signed up for were canceled, she pivoted to sewing masks. Post-pandemic, Daly resumed traveling to farmers markets and spent months searching for a storefront that would enable her to reach another market. When she saw the 2nd Street building in Northern Liberties, she knew she’d found a home for her business.

As you step into the hygge space, its clean lines and heady fragrances are simultaneously soothing and invigorating. Open shelves and a handsome bulk dispensing island invite browsing. Among the carefully researched inventory, Ray’s Reusables offers personal care items such as tallow soap, mineral sunscreen, bamboo toothbrushes, vegan dental floss (commercial dental floss is commonly coated with beeswax or petroleum-based wax), safety razors and shaving brushes. Household items are equally varied. Reusable paperless towels, cast iron pan conditioner, pencil sharpeners, bamboo cutlery and greeting cards are all on offer. More than 30 items can be purchased as refills, including deodorant, hair gel, witch hazel, insect repellent and Epsom salts. Daly shares that the “Big Three” — the most popular refill items — are ones people use most frequently in their homes: laundry detergent, liquid dish soap and hand soap.

Everybody has to enter [zero waste] from where it makes sense for them. I ask people, ‘What are you trying to replace? What’s most important to you?’”

— Ray Daly, Ray’s Reusables

Her first year running the retail location with four part-time employees has had its challenges, including the extensive research required to overcome regulatory hurdles governing container reuse. Daly, 32, claims she “operates on intuition,” while she admits to being “bad at a lot of stuff and very willing to seek out advice.” She has worked with coaches from SCORE, a national non-profit providing free mentorship to small businesses, and completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program at the Community College of Philadelphia.

She is also deeply committed to learning from her customers. The dialogue starts by meeting the customer where they are; Daly knows how hard it is to make behavior changing choices. “Everybody has to enter [zero waste] from where it makes sense for them. I ask people, ‘What are you trying to replace? What’s most important to you?’” She likes to start people with easy swaps, like using Swedish dish cloths instead of paper towels.

“Sustainable looks very different to different people,” she says. “There’s no one right way to be sustainable.” She laughs when recounting how often customers look embarrassed as they enter carrying a throwaway coffee cup. “No need to apologize,” she says, “We’re not here to judge. We are all imperfectly sustainable.”

A Maryland native, Daly is grateful her husband’s career brought them to Philly, which she views as “a really great green city with lots of support and energy” for businesses that are trying to provide alternatives to wasteful consumption. She would love to see the city offer incentives to encourage more businesses to move toward zero-waste practices.

Ray Daly. Photo by Chris Baker Evens.

Meanwhile, Daly keeps her focus on her customers. These friendly interactions help offset the loneliness she can sometimes experience as a solo owner. Daly wants everyone to know what keeps her going as she works to build a sustainable business: “We never take it for granted that you’ll come into the shop and support us … We’re always here to talk you through those moments [of hard decisions], making the transition to less waste … I’m just like you. I’m figuring it out as I go. We’re here to help people do their best because that’s all we’re doing.”

Ray’s Reusables is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday from 10 to 6 p.m.; and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at 935 North 2nd Street in Northern Liberties.

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