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Omaha Magazine

100% Committed to Mother Earth

Feb 22, 2024 11:06AM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
Leigh Neary exist green profile omaha magazine march april 2024

Leigh Neary

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

The heart of Dundee is host to a business called Exist Green, featuring lush greenery and fabulous curb appeal. Inside, however, is a one-of-a-kind business model, at least for the Omaha metro. A glance around the shop reveals Castile soap, reusable straws, and other items often carried in stores to help people reduce their consumption of plastics and packagings that go in the trash bin and consequently the landfill. The difference between many of those stores and Exist Green, however, is that the packaging in this store often comes from the consumers themselves.

Running a retail store is a 90-degree turn from owner Leigh Neary’s first career. She studied groundwater pollution at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and her research discovered why river restoration isn’t working. 

“I proved, essentially, with two other women on my team, that these river restoration projects are pointless, because we don't allow rivers to go through floodplains,” she said, noting that it’s critical to create different areas of rivers for fish lifecycles. “And so they kind of add boulders in these different spots to create eddies and calm areas instead of just straight river flow. But the way we have created berms and levees, these projects go away after 10 years, and it goes back to like the way it was.”

While in Fort Collins, she also worked at the Colorado State University Center for Contaminant Hydrogeology, conducting research with the flammable liquid Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), which has been used as an additive for unleaded gasoline since the 1980s. The research was partly funded by Chevron Corp., which was so impressed by her work they gave her a chance to intern at their headquarters in Northern California. 

During that time, in 2006, California passed AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act that required a sharp reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to help transition to a low-carbon future. It was the first comprehensive law to address climate change, requiring a reduction of greenhouse emissions by 15% over 15 years.

“This was a pretty amazing learning experience, because I was working at the refinery,” Neary said. “I was able to look at every single fuel input at all of the different potential spots for emissions and then quantify how much fuel they're burning in these different spots. That’s not even talking about what their final product emits, which is even larger, but this is just what's happening at the refinery. I was able to learn even more about how our refinery works.”

She thought she would be at Chevron for a five-month internship, then return to Colorado for a master’s degree, but she remained at the company for an additional 14 months, simultaneously studying at University of California Berkeley. 

Her work as an environmental engineer taught her that what she wanted was to create change for, rather than working on Band-Aid solutions to, major environmental problems. On a plane ride, she dreamt of an online, Earth-friendly business. That business became a reality in 2019, when she opened Exist Green, a nearly-zero-waste market and eco-friendly boutique. 

Much of the 5,000-square-foot store is devoted to large containers—those holding bulk items such as grains, herbs and spices, teas, and cleaning or beauty items—from which patrons can specify their desired quantity. Shoppers then place products into their own receptacles, which are weighed before goods are added to ensure the correct cost. Those who forget their own containers can acquire ones in store.

Samantha Nieman of Elkhorn is a sustainability consultant with Hillside Solutions and an Exist Green customer. She keeps crates inside her bathroom and kitchen, and when she is running low on a product, such as hairspray, she puts her container in the crate. That way, when she goes to Exist Green, she has all her containers together. Nieman and other customers drop off their containers to be washed and filled as they browse, or in Nieman’s case, run errands, and then return to pick up their items.

“My favorite products would be the hairspray, the laundry detergent, and the dishwashing (soap) block,” Nieman said. “The hairspray is my top product because I can go to the store, refill the hairspray, take it home, and it works really well with my hair chemistry.”

While no store can ensure 100% zero waste, Neary’s is as close as possible. Boxes of trash bags are compostable (both the box and the bags), mascara wands are bamboo and reusable, and the mascara tubes themselves are metal and refillable. All packaging that comes into the store, such as shipping boxes, are recycled or composted. Neary’s concern for the environment extends to the brands she carries in the store. Razor brand Albatross, for example, is committed to a take-back program for their blades, leaving only a paper box to be recycled.

While carting jars to a store isn’t normal for most people, those who patronize Exist Green have discovered their reduction in carbon footprint makes it worthwhile.

“It's new. It's different. It is an extra step than just, you know, doing a Target run and being done,” Nieman said. “But what I would like to tell people is just go into the store, bring some jars, and try some products out.” 

Visit existgreen.com for more information. Follow social media @ExistGreen1 on Facebook@Exist_Green on X; and exist_green on Instagram.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Leigh Neary

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

 

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