While lounging at a picnic table outside of Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I’m distracted by a woman tossing out a garbage bag. When I ask the store’s Sustainability Director, Faebyan Whittle, if it’s the day’s trash, she replies, “No, that’s the recycling; the bag of trash was half that size.” Curious, I wander over and peer into the near-empty dumpster. The day’s haul—generated from a bustling 15,000-square-foot outdoor shop—is no larger than the one lining my bathroom bin back home. “I’m considering finding out options for downsizing our dumpster,” Whittle laughs. “We don’t need it.”
She’s not joking. In June, Whittle completed Pack Rat’s most recent waste audit, an analytical process she learned a few years ago from a county environmental educator. She was stunned—and ecstatic—about the results: The store achieved an over 90 percent waste diversion rate. “We only send 10 percent of the trash that we make to the landfill,” she explains. When I express admiration for what she’s achieved, Whittle is quick to note that this success is shared with the entire Pack Rat team. “It’s not me—it’s everybody doing it. It’s everybody seeing that this is the change that we can make.”
I traveled to Fayetteville in August for a firsthand view of Pack Rat’s unique approach to sustainability. What I discovered is that their pioneering work can serve as a catalyst for change not only within the outdoor industry, but also beyond to the retail industry as a whole.
From dirty diapers to sustainability director
One of the first things I notice about Whittle is that she’s always picking up litter—outside of the store, in front of the café where we eat lunch, near the grassy overlook we visit for a beautiful view of the city. While it took some time to develop this hawk-eyed habit, Whittle’s fascination with waste began when she considered the landfill-clogging potential of disposable diapers after her son was born. A stint at a Little Rock pizza parlor, where she confronted daily food waste, brought the issue into sharp relief. After moving to Fayetteville and discovering the city’s recycling program, Whittle was inspired to take action, implementing recycling initiatives at several of her workplaces, including a plasma donation center and a Montessori school.
Whittle landed a part-time position at Pack Rat, a family-owned outdoor shop that’s been serving northwest Arkansas recreationalists since 1973, just over six years ago, and her green streak followed. Out of habit, she pulled recyclable and compostable items from the trash, but did so quietly to avoid shaming her colleagues. “It’s not bad that we have to throw away things, and I don’t think that we should demonize people who do,” she says. “But I really do feel like it’s super valuable to take a step back and see what we can do a little differently.”
After moving into a full-time role at Pack Rat, Whittle wondered how she could grow the 45-year-old store’s sustainability efforts, which had mostly focused on recycling. After careful research and number crunching, one of her first steps was approaching Pack Rat co-founder Carolyn Crook and manager Chally Sims about replacing two energy inefficient break room refrigerators. To her surprise, she was given the green light— and eventually, the title of Sustainability Director.
VIDEO: Pack rat co-founder Carolyn Crook explains why going green was is not only a key part of her store’s mission, but why it makes financial sense.
For Crook, allowing Whittle the leeway to research and implement sustainability practices alongside her other duties was the perfect reflection of Pack Rat’s commitment to the outdoors and their community. “She’s passionate about it, and her passion trickles down into everybody else,” says Crook. “The whole staff knows that I support that passion. They know the outcome is that we will have a better place to play.”
Getting green: Reduce, reuse, recycle
It’s not unusual for an outdoor shop to take an interest in waste reduction – many implement recycling programs, some trade in used gear or offer repairs, others use reclaimed and recycled materials throughout their buildings (like Denali in TK and southeast-based Half-Moon Outfitters, who recently received South Carolina’s first LEED platinum certification.
But driven by Whittle’s passion, Pack Rat has prioritized sustainability across their operation—from providing reusable glasses at their Pint Night community events to installing 348 solar arrays on their rooftop— and their path to a 90 percent diversion rate is less complicated than you might think.
Banishing plastic bottles is low-hanging fruit: A group of anglers, guides, and fishing lodges have launched a Kick Plastic movement.
After the refrigerator fix, Whittle focused on the “three R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle. She cast a critical eye on items like cleaning and office supplies, moving to eco-friendly bulk purchases done once per year to reduce packaging waste. She also launched a composting initiative to promote the idea that food isn’t trash. Sims built a simple compost pile behind the store, and later increased their capacity with two large tumblers used to store and turn compost material. There were some issues at first—people sometimes forgot to empty a collection bin kept in the break room, and they subsequently developed a gnat problem—but a tenacious Whittle reconfigured the system until it worked. Thanks to food waste collection and use of compostable materials at their events, Pack Rat now creates an overflow of compost, which the city happily collects.
The store was recycling before Whittle’s arrival: They collected aluminum cans and cardboard, and donated #4 plastics—that is, those made from low-density polyethylene, the material used in most polybags—to a local company that upcycles them into composite decking material. Whittle’s research, however, turbocharged their efforts.
Her biggest breakthrough came via TerraCycle, a company that offers solutions for “hard-to-recycle waste.” She became involved in the program’s “brigades,” regional initiatives that pool resources to collect and recycle materials—pens, water filters, snack wrappers, hydration tubes—that municipalities don’t accept. She also learned how to create a “recycling center,” and this is the first thing I see when entering the store’s break room. I’m surprised by its simplicity—it’s just a stack of repurposed cardboard boxes, clearly labeled to collect various materials. While not every retailer will have the space for quite so many, I’m struck by the idea that even one box—one type of material diverted from landfills—can make a difference.
A behind the scenes look at Pack Rat’s incredibly complete recycling system
It’s easy to identify Whittle’s impact throughout the building. In the “boat barn,” kayaks are racked above bins of plastic, bags of Styrofoam, and boxes of assorted recyclable odds and ends. In a storage area, boxes are stuffed with bubble wrap, which is offered to employees, donated to Goodwill, or given to a local mail processing company. And near the registers, the first thing I—and customers—see is a bin for empty aluminum cans, along with a pair of boxes used to collect recyclable snack wrappers and coffee cups.
One thing I don’t see during my time in the store? Trash cans, except for inside the bathrooms. “If our customers need a trash can, they have to ask for one and we can determine if they can recycle or not,” says Whittle. It’s clear that at Pack Rat, everything has a home – and a chance at a second life.
All of this effort requires creative thinking, but Whittle enjoys the challenge. When confronted with difficult-to-process #5 plastic used in the shipping endcaps for Yakima racks, she simply collected them until she found a local company who could recycle them. After realizing the plastic spools found inside register tape contained BPA and couldn’t be recycled, she donated them to a library for use in craft projects —and then she found register tape that didn’t use a spool. Every material that passes through the store is scrutinized, and Whittle will hold on to items for months —even years— while working on solutions. “It’s hard to deter Faebyan, and I mean that in a good way,” says assistant floor manager Hannah Spencer. “When she has a conviction, she’ll stick to her guns.”
Culture change, one step at a time
Pack Rat’s sustainability work is impressive, but it’s also replicable. Sims offers a reminder that everything in place now was built over many years, bit by bit. “It’s just like any habit,” she says. “Whether you’re breaking one or making a new one, it just takes a little time.” Whittle agrees. “I think anybody can be in the place that we are now. It just will look different on everybody,” she says. “It won’t be the same model, and it won’t be the same pattern, but it is so possible.”
For Whittle, it all starts with asking what you can do better, then making small, incremental changes. She suggests looking to your city and county for resources, researching alternative recycling options in your area, learning about TerraCycle’s programs, and partnering with other local businesses to brainstorm and multiply your efforts. Most of all? Support employees who want to effect change. “I can take stuff out of the trash all day long,” says Whittle. “But if the business that you work for doesn’t feel like that’s something that matters, then it’s difficult to really make a difference.”
The importance of her work was never up for debate. “If we’re going to be a part of the outdoor industry and ask our leaders and legislators for good environmental laws— and if we’re not doing it at home, then we’re not walking the walk,” says Sims. “I mean, if it doesn’t mean something to us, who’s going to do it?”
A ripple effect
Not one to rest on her laurels, Whittle is busy creating a 30-page waste reduction manual and hopes to establish a Pack Rat “green team” to share duties and continue this work long into the future. In the meantime, the effects of her efforts have reverberated into the community. Customers bring their reusable Pint Night glasses to events, drop off recyclable items at the store, and ask questions about properly disposing of used gear.
While the store doesn’t sell used items, they do host occasional used gear sales in their parking lot, and are happy to recommend other outlets (including a Facebook group run by another outdoor shop) to help customers repurpose their goods rather that trash them. In addition, local businesses, including an optometry practice and a Subaru dealership, partner with Pack Rat on TerraCycle brigades, and a nearby coffee shop even called during my visit to ask how to improve their own sustainability work.
I, too, was affected by my experience at Pack Rat. As Whittle rang up a purchase I made at the end of my visit, I found myself focusing on the hangtags—where would they end up at the end of the day, or in a month, or in a year? I asked whether she could recycle the tags; she unleashed a wide smile and said that she could. Then I smiled, too, as I watched Faebyan Whittle quietly snip away, knowing that this is how change happens, bit by bit.