Refill shop
The City to Sea Refill app helps coordinate shopping around less plastic.

What next for refill?

Taking your own containers is the best way to cut down on plastic, but the cost-of-living crisis is making people think twice about where to shop. Becky Blench finds out more for World Refill Day.

With ever more alarming headlines about the climate crisis, taking action even in the smallest way is empowering.

The feelgood factor of simple everyday acts, like refilling your water bottle or being able to say no to a plastic bag because you brought your own, is important both for the planet and our mental health – but new research shows 65 per cent of UK consumers feel forced to give up on plastic-free shopping due to the cost-of-living crisis.

New research, released today (16 June) to mark World Refill Day by environmental campaigners City to Sea, finds that although 95 per cent are concerned about plastic pollution, only half of us are doing less to reduce single-use plastic as a direct result of the increase in household bills.

Responses from those surveyed said they felt frustrated, powerless, angry, sad, and worried about the amount of plastic that comes with their weekly shop – that’s a lot to hold when all you are actually wanting is to buy your groceries.

Shifting responsibility to consumers to ‘do the right thing’ while not providing affordable ways of doing this is a situation that needs to change – fast.

Plastic harms natural environments and is made using fossil fuels. Image City to Sea.

Greenpeace estimate that at least 56.5 billion units of single-use plastic packaging go onto the UK grocery market each year – and 99 per cent of plastic packaging is made from fossil fuels.

Although cost is now the most important factor in purchasing decisions, 93 per cent would like to see more refill and reuse options available.  

There have been small scale supermarket refill scheme trials, and The Refill Coalition is working with major UK retailers on a universal refill system that could be an industry-wide solution, but real change still feels like a long way off.

While progress has been slower at the major retailers, there is also a thriving network of independent zero waste and refill shops across the UK, and by buying there you support small business owners while shopping with less impact.

Natalie Fee, founder of City to Sea, says: “We urgently need to shift from our disposable, single-use culture to a more sustainable, circular future, with reuse and refill at the centre. The good news is, we already have the tools we need to change the world. A reusable future is possible.”

You can refill anything from cereals to cleaning products. Image City to Sea.

Refilling on a budget

  • To find local zero waste shops, cafes and water refill stations across the UK, City to Sea’s free Refill app is a great go-to resource.
  • Some refill stores sell containers but go ready stocked with your own upcycled jars, bags and bottles.
  • Being able to buy smaller amounts of good quality spices, herbs and dried goods can help you diversify your diet on a budget.
Refill options don’t have to break the bank. Image City to Sea.
  • Check the price of each product per 100g/kg/100ml/litre and calculate how much the amount you want is going to cost before you fill your container.
  • Form a purchasing group with friends or neighbours to bulk buy, reducing both the cost and the amount of packaging – Suma and Essential Trading are both great ethical co-operatives.
  • Try mail order eco-friendly refill subscriptions such as Splosh, Smol and Bower Collective.
  • Get inspiration for zero waste on a budget from influencers including @my_plastic_free_home, @zerowastedoc and @sustainably_vegan.


Leave a Reply

  1. Unfortunately until the price comes down for a lot of zero waste items it will never hit mass market. The majority of people in the UK are in lower income families who just cannot afford to shop this way.

    1. I’m not sure this is always true – I’ve found that the prices in my local zero waste shop are (to my surprise and delight) no higher than the local supermarket, and for some products significantly lower. So my main problem is remembering to take a few empty jars with me when I go to town.

    2. Many prices are equivalent to supermarkets – but as supermarkets have huge buying power, can they can offer some goods at a loss, dropping prices below what smaller businesses can offer. Zero waste shops are great in terms of ethics and low environmental impact, as they source goods carefully. Be interested to hear from zero waste shop owners on this thread to share their thoughts on the price point issue and how they have found a way to engage lower income local shoppers.

  2. Doing some of my shopping at a refill shop makes me feel good. So much of what I hear about the state of the planet leaves me feeling helpless, angry, sad etc. i sometimes hear of various schemes to provide food for local people, grown locally and it is lovely.
    I come out of the refill shop knowing I may have paid a bit more than I could have at the supermarket, but I have supported smaller local shops, cut out a lot of plastic, perhaps spent a bit more time but chatted to people, bought real food, the list goes on.
    I know what I can do is buy a couple of bottles of wine less, buy fewer clothes and my overall costs will even out. I know some refill shops have failed, I hope no more do.

  3. And so we get in one of your pictures a rather pretty young lady loading a “Plastic Box” from other “Plastic Containers” [that looks suspiciously like they’ve been purposely made for the job (so rather than cutting out plastic we repurpose it to another form of itself). But where is that shop in comparison to her home, how much more does it cost fuelwise to get to the shop? If my experience is anything to go by there is one in the next town up the line and another in the next town down the line – so what exactly does that save both us and our world? Plus of course the picture looks “posed” i.e. is the “model” actually paid to pose for this picture? So this is GOOD? In that case what exactly IS BAD?

    the Walrus

    1. Single use plastic packaging is a huge environmental issue but although mainstream supermarkets keep trialling refills, they are yet to roll them out. With refill stores, you can use any packaging you already have and refill it – no need to buy anything new! They tend to be in smaller local stores and indepentent refill shops were a huge help during lockdowns within their communities. Some fantastic initiatives have sprung up to help reduce food miles – in London the TopupTruck uses a repurposed electric milkfloat as a mobile refill station that comes to your street

      Surfers Against Sewage recently revealed the Dirty Dozen companies responsible for a whopping 70% of branded packing pollution found across the UK: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonalds, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Mondelez International, Nestlé, Tesco, Red Bull GmbH, Suntory, Carlsberg Group, Heineken Holding and Mars. They are calling on companies to end their harmful pollution by taking responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products, reducing their packaging and adopting circular business models, alongside the government introducing a Deposit Return Scheme countrywide to help get more packaging reused and recycled.

  4. In reply to the comments Editors answer to my post – for a start I am not in London, so using the mythical long used Electric Vehicle (a device that adds polution in it’s own right – cost a fortune to reload from the National Grid, most of which does not obtain its power from “renewables” – I won’t say much more about that or the damage a “short” during the night whilst reloading, disposing of spent Lithium batteries etc. etc.) does nor affect me – unless Riverford has taken to using EV delivery vans (which I doubt – too unreliable at a guess). You need to look much closer to home to find me!

    Following on from this, as may be noted I wasn’t talking about me – due my present health situation I have to have everything delivered but that is a completely different situation. I was more concerned with the use of what is at the moment the more usual means of transport – if the shop in question is withing walking distance the problem is solved however if not . . . . . . . choice of train or car or bus in most cases? Donkey cart maybe, but where do you park ’em in Totnes or Teignmouth?

    Add to this your list of “naughty” firms does little build confidence that something happens – as is this mythical Deposit Return Scheme – which is rather retrograde as far as I can see – we had such a scheme back in the 50’s with the return of Lemonade bottles etc. to pubs – why do I feel back then the “landlords” of pubs knew how most of those bottles where getting back to them – bless ’em for looking after us kids who didn’t have much back then.

    Finally why do I feel that your comments seem to be more in line with the “proverbial Party Political Broadcast?” specifically written to cover everything yet not covering aything not known about already – thanks for trying anyway!

    the Walrus


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