Learn how to reduce single-use plastic with Joanna Blythman's guide to refill shops. Discover how to buy in bulk and cut down on food packaging.
I am totally besotted with a new shop that’s opened nearby. It’s less than a year since it welcomed its first customers, yet it’s proved so popular that it’s already expanding into the premises next door. Does it sell cannabis oil and ice cream? Nope, it’s a refill shop and it has revolutionised my life.
The amount of packaging I’m throwing out is a fraction of what it once was and to make matters even better, this emporium is saving me a serious amount of money and cupboard space.
Here’s how it works: its charming proprietors have gravity dispensers mounted on the walls, the sort where you pull down a lever and food pours into your receptacle. It did take me a couple of times to get the hang of this, and there was the embarrassing incident when I launched a flood of cocao nibs onto the floor, but I was instantly forgiven.
Essentially, what you do is either fill up paper bags (I bring old ones I’ve already used many times until they literally fall apart), or you can use your own storage jars and tins. It’s a fantastic system. From cereals, spices and nuts through to sugar, pasta and pulses, it does away with the plastic packaging I was generating, even from the well intentioned, utilitarian pre-packs I was buying from the whole food shop. Now I only fill up with what I actually need in the near future, rather than over-buying in case I run out.
Selling foods loose is a traditional system that can palpably green up the household shopping, and it’s really catching on, catering to our post-Blue Planet revulsion with plastic. A recent GlobalData survey found that 71.3% of UK consumers are willing to use food refill services. I’d replace that ‘willing’ with ‘keen’. I see refill shops like mine popping up all over the place.
Initial start-up costs are relatively low and progressive entrepreneurs see that they can generate a fair income from them. So they blossom, like coffee bars, while other types of shops struggle. These dynamic businesses aren’t just about food. Liquid refills are another feature, and here’s where the environmental benefits are particularly epic.
I now feel mortified to think back to those unenlightened years when every time we ran out of laundry liquid or the like, I’d chuck out the empty plastic bottle in the naive belief that it would be ‘recycled’. Now I can fill up my empty wine bottles with ecological versions of all the modern cleaning products, plus all the old, highly effective ones too (white vinegar, soda crystals) along with organic olive oil, live apple cider vinegar, kombucha, and more.
I know I’m beginning to be my grandmother here, but I cannot tell you how much pleasure this re-use and refill system brings me, as I redeploy every plastic and paper receptacle over and over until it is well and truly worn out. And if it sounds hair shirt, believe me, it isn’t.
Sad though it may sound, I actually look forward to going into my local refill shop, because the stock doesn’t stop there. They sell beeswax wraps, which let me dispense with cling film, and all the innovative, new-wave, eco beauty and household products, from wooden toothbrushes and copper pot scourers to coconut oil sun tan cream and toothpaste in a glass jar, rather than the standard single-use plastic tube.
My bathroom shelves are unrecognisable – almost totally purged of plastic. In times when we’re so often downcast at the scale of the environmental challenge facing us, these independently-run refill shops are a blast of light and game-changing positivity. Every shopping parade needs one.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
Banning eating on public transport is misguided
For health’s sake, please eat when you drink
The humble potato deserves more respect
Why ‘grass-fed’ isn’t as virtuous as it seems
Why I won't use vegetable oil
Stop the vegan fake ‘meat’ copycats
There's a lot of artisan fakery about
Have you tried refill shops? Leave a comment below...
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.