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Ruhling: The Planet Proponent

The planet is weeping when Kayli Kunkel opens the door to her store, Earth & Me.

It’s raining cats and dogs and elephants and lions.

She sighs –she’s holding an event later, and this May monsoon isn’t about to stop sobbing any time soon.

The planet’s perpetual peril pains Kayli.

Kayli, whose face is defined by horn-rims and a sense of urgent earnestness, grew up in the Mississippi River bluff town of Dubuque, Iowa, where she spent her spare time playing on the beach and riding the waves in a pontoon boat.

“My dad took us on hikes, and we were always catching frogs and tadpoles,” she says. “We always had pets, and once we even brought home a wild rabbit. I liked to watch Steve Irwin’s nature shows on TV.”

Kayli tried several pursuits before she focused her passion on the planet.

For pretty much the first decade of her life, she was a dancer, stepping and spinning her way around the Midwest, winning competitions.

Later, she devoted herself to show choir, performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as well as at Carnegie Hall.

But she also was interested in writing and storytelling, which is why she majored in graphic design and magazine journalism at Drake University, which is in Des Moines, some three and a half hours from the house she grew up in.

“My biggest goal was to be an art director for a major magazine,” she says, adding that she stayed in Des Moines to take a job with the media conglomerate Meredith Corp.

As magazines around the country started folding like dinner napkins, Kayli shifted to a career in content marketing, which she pursued for a couple of years before coming to New York City.

“My partner, who I’m still with, was studying architecture and got a job here,” she says. “I was ready for a change, too.”

When the pandemic hit, Kayli was the marketing director for a software company, a job she was laid off from in June 2020.

Because everyone was staying home and doing things like making sourdough bread and masks between Netflix binges, Kayli literally tried her hand at home goods.

(The colorful coasters she created out of vintage yarn are for sale at Earth & Me.)

“I also joined the social justice protests,” she says. “I decided to open a zero-waste store that carries handmade eco-conscious items produced locally. This happened two weeks after my job ended.”

She began researching local sources and products and started doing pop-up stores that summer.

She opened her first Earth & Me (it is so named because she wanted to put herself in the  equation) in a small space on Astoria Boulevard in December 2020.

In September 2021, she opened an expanded Earth & Me on Steinway Street that includes a café with home-baked goods, an outdoor events space, vintage clothing and kitchenware and a substantial stock of hand-made refillable items that range from soaps and pastas to spices and teas.

“The idea of the refills is rather like the old milk deliveries,” she says. “You buy the product, and when the bottle’s empty, you bring it back or we pick it up and deliver a refill. Right now, we are local deliveries only, but we are going to expand to include all the boroughs. The items are transported in an electric van.”

She estimates that her refills have reduced the use of plastic bottles by the thousands.

Earth & Me looks like an old-time grocery store: The bulk items are displayed in glass bottles and glass canisters.

There are shiny silver scoops and funnels for the dry goods.

“There are no stores in Queens that offer these refills,” she says. “And there are very few in New York City. I want to make refilling as convenient as going to the bodega.”

Earth & Me and Kayli are all about saving the planet and building a like-minded community.

The shop’s cards are made of recyclable paper, and the products’ packaging is recyclable as well as compostable.

Next to the counter, there’s a plant propagation wall, where customers can rehome greenery.

“Our customers also donate clothing to SCRAP to be recycled,” she says. “We get about three to four bags a day. I’m proud to say that we’ve kept over 1,000 pounds of textiles out of the landfills.”

For Kayli, who lives in a Jackson Heights apartment with her partner and her dog, recycling comes naturally.

She composts and produces so little garbage that her trash can, which is only 2 feet tall, gets full enough to empty only every three weeks or so.

“We are conscious about what we buy,” she says. “And we only buy what we need.”

For the planet’s sake, she hopes her sustainable practices catch on.

“Typically, I’m in the store every day,” she says. “I knew what to expect from running a small business because of my parents, who each had their own company.”

Kayli has plans to expand Earth & Me.

She talks about refill pop-up stores, diffuser bars with signature scents and a line of skin-care products.

“But these,” she concedes, “are way down the path.”

She looks out the front door at the raindrops splashing on the sidewalk.

The showers aren’t expected to let up until early tomorrow morning.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

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