Still, she was stuck with plastic bottles of shampoo, detergent and lotion, when all she needed was the product inside. “I was even willing to drive to another city to refill my empty bottles, but couldn’t find a place to do that,” she says. So she built a spot herself. Within a year, Taylor-Heacock opened Good Bottle Refill Shop, the first of its kind in the state.
Across the country, zero-waste and refill shops are popping up with increasing regularity. My cursory search found Mason & Greens in Alexandria, Va.; To the Brim Refill Store in Asheville, N.C.; the Nada Shop in Encinitas, Calif.; BYOC in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Fill More Waste Less in Cincinnati; EcoBronx in New York; and Joy Fill and Zero Market in Colorado. Litterless is a good online source for finding similar businesses; click on “Where to Bulk Grocery Shop.”
Refill shops tend to be small, independent stores that sell non-packaged personal-care items, such as shampoo, body wash and hand soap, as well as household products, such as laundry detergent and all-purpose cleaner. Shoppers bring their own containers. Some stores also stock food (beans, pasta, dried fruits, spices, snacks), and most sell other sustainable products, such as biodegradable dog-waste bags, reusable coffee filters and stainless-steel ice-pop molds. The overriding goal is to reduce the sale of single-use plastics.
Jamaica Trinnaman opened her first Salt Lake City Hello!Bulk Markets store in 2018. Based on the inquiries received daily from other aspiring entrepreneurs, she says, she wouldn’t be surprised to see more than two dozen new refill shops open this year alone.
Mala Persaud plans to open Trace in Vienna, Va., this fall. “The appetite for zero-waste shops is pretty incredible. Even at markets where I set up a pop-up, I’m finding customers searching for ‘zero waste near me’ and anxious for the opportunity to do their part,” she says.
With refill shops becoming an option for more consumers, you may wonder: “Are they for me?” My own meager effort to reduce plastic waste has been to toss recyclables into my bin for pickup every other week. And during the pandemic, I bought shower cleaner in bulk and refilled a smaller spray bottle, but that was more about reducing trips to the store than sustainability. Still, I have a nagging feeling that I could be doing more.
Sarah Andert, a zero-waste consultant and owner of the first zero waste and refill shop in New Orleans, Vintage Green Review, put my mind at ease. “It’s unrealistic to expect everyone will become a minimalist or go zero waste,” she says.
It took a visit from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to Earth & Me in New York to pique Kevin Mejia’s interest, even though he lives next to the shop. Now he’s a loyal customer, refilling bottles of shampoo and body lotion. “I appreciate the eco movement, but I’m not a die-hard,” he says. “Not only do I like the sustainable concept, but shopping there allows me to support local businesses.”
Ready to check out a refill shop? Here’s what to know.
They sell more than you might expect. Zero-waste shops may have a small footprint, but they’re typically well-stocked. For instance, Philadelphia-based Good Buy Supply sells dish soap, hand soap, laundry soap, all-purpose cleaner, lotion, body wash and shampoo. You’ll often find a choice of scents, as well as an unscented option. Plus, most stores sell all kinds of supplies to help you live plastic-free, including plant-based dental floss in glass jars and compostable sponges.
The refill process is easy. Whether a store employee fills your container or you do it yourself, the process is the same: Weigh the empty container. Note the “tare” (empty) weight. Fill the container. Weigh it again. Subtract the tare weight from the full weight. Pay only for the weight of the liquid or product.
Bring your own container or purchase one. You can buy glass or aluminum bottles with sprayers, pumps or screw tops. Prices depend on the size and design, but they start at about $2 for basic ones. If you do bring your own container — plastic, glass, aluminum, etc. — make sure it’s clean and dry. “The products we sell are all natural with no preservatives. If a container isn’t clean, it could contaminate or adversely affect [grow bacteria or mold] what we put in it,” says Emily Rodia, co-founder of Good Buy Supply.
Buy as little or as much as you wish. Refill shops allow customers to buy a small amount (as little as one ounce) of an unfamiliar product, so you can try it before you commit. If you’re a first-timer, take a lap around the store and explore your options. Want to sniff a scent or test a body-care product? Ask a clerk. These stores are also the perfect place to fill travel-size containers. Or, if you love a particular laundry detergent, you can purchase it in bulk. (Yes, even gallons.)
You may save money . . . or not. The products you buy may determine your savings. Plant-based, eco-friendly laundry detergent is a good example. Prices range from about 21 cents to 47 cents per ounce. That may seem like a lot compared with mainstream brands. However, the detergent sold in refill shops is concentrated, so you only use about one tablespoon per load. Shampoos may run you from about 55 cents to $1.20 per ounce, but because they contain higher-quality, all-natural ingredients (which are listed in the stores and online), you need to compare them against salon-quality brands, rather than what you’d buy at the grocery store.
Requests are welcome. Zero-waste stores encourage customers to request items or brands that they’d be interested in buying. For example, Vintage Green Review has a form on its website where customers can submit requests for products they’ve seen in other cities or have ordered online. Recent requests include tofu cat litter, bamboo toilet paper and crystal deodorant, Andert says.
They practice what they preach. Refill shops typically operate on a closed-loop model. That means dish soap may come in 30-gallon barrels or shampoo in five-gallon bags. When those containers are empty, the retailer sends them back to the supplier to be refilled.
Sustainability isn’t one-size-fits-all. Shopping at a refill store isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. “Our stores offer an easy way to make a simple change in your lifestyle. If all you buy is laundry detergent, that’s okay. I get it. I’m not super into the environment movement. I’m just a mom who didn’t like all the waste,” Taylor-Heacock says.
Adds Rodia: “I like the term ‘low-waste’ versus ‘zero-waste,’ as it is more attainable. Even one item saved from a landfill is a win.”