Sunday, June 23, 2024

At the Cleenland store near Central Square, customers refill their containers of laundry detergent, dish soap, hand soap, shampoo and other items from bulk dispensers (Photo: Cleenland via Facebook)

At Cleenland, products conventionally sold in single-use plastic containers are instead dispensed in bulk, reducing significantly the plastic waste associated with shopping. Customers bring in their own containers to fill with laundry detergent, dish soap, hand soap, shampoo and other items from a growing list of dispensable products.

And plenty of customers are finding their way there – despite the colorful bricks-and-mortar shop at 89A Norfolk St. just opening in mid-June, two blocks north off the beaten paths of Central Square.

“I didn’t know what to expect at all, but there’s a ton of foot traffic, and I’m really happy that as many people have come in as they have,” said Sarah Levy, owner and founder of Cleenland, and a resident of the neighborhood.

Cleenland owner and founder Sarah Levy in her Norfolk Street store. (Photo: Lena Nahan)

Levy launched Cleenland after leaving a job at Formlabs, a 3D printing company in Somerville, but she has contemplated the effects of plastic pollution for as long as she can remember. “I’ve always reused Ziploc bags, and then one day I realized my toothbrush was plastic,” she said. “As a consumer, I think it’s a good idea to start thinking beyond the item and its usefulness to you – but also the components of it, what those materials are, and where they’re going when you’re done with them.” 

Beyond the issue of packaging, Levy chooses suppliers that reflect social and environmental ethics. “The true cost is reflected more in the way these kinds of companies price their products, as opposed to multinational corporations who have economies of scale who can use their power to not treat employees as well, and to use ingredients that are cheap but not as good for humans or the environment,” she said. 

Cleenland started as a vendor at the Union Square Farmers Market. Now Levy doesn’t just have a storefront, but also runs a listserv for small bulk stores such as hers that serve neighborhoods around the country. “We’re really not in competition. It’s such a local [type of] business,” she said.

In addition to bulk goods, Cleenland stocks items from sustainable and social responsible companies. (Photo: Cleenland)

The store expects to expand its collection of refillable personal care products further with low-waste toothpaste alternatives, facial cleanser and moisturizer. “The goal is to be as responsive as I can to what folks in the community want,” Levy said. Her own favorite: The Cleenland floss, which is both refillable and biodegradable, “so you’re getting rid of plastic of the floss itself and getting rid of the plastic of the container.” But she is also excited for a clay skincare mask, which is truly just clay the customer mixes with water. “Really anything where you can avoid shipping water is great,” she said.

“We always say to start with one thing,” she said. “It’s easier to build off of that than feel like you have to do everything at once or be perfect – you know, no one is.”

Store hours are weekdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., but closed on Tuesdays. Weekend hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., except during the Saturdays when Cleenland sells at Somerville’s Union Square Farmer’s Market.

To suggest items for Cleenland to carry or for information about discounts, new products or Cleenland’s grand opening party in August, sign up for emails at

Lena Nahan is a Cambridge resident and Lesley University student interested in local environmental action and wildlife restoration.