Why we need to become a refill nation 

Alongside the opportunity to shop via refills, we also need to work on our own mindset. Surely the minor inconvenience of taking containers with us is a worthy price to pay to help cut plastic?

As we look toward life post-lockdown, there’s a huge opportunity to rethink so much about how we live. In the current climate and ecological crisis, our shopping habits are totally unsustainable, but government inaction means consumers and environmental groups are having to lead the way. 

We need to become a ‘refill nation’ using supermarkets not as vendors of highly packaged goods, but refill stations that can be more about good food and community resources. Lockdown has shown us that we can change habits rapidly if necessary, and this could be harnessed in a positive way to support a wholesale shift in how we shop.

In a recent poll, Bristol-based environmental group City To Sea found 92 per cent of UK adults are concerned about plastic pollution, and 74 per cent agree they would like to see more refill/reuse options available. So, if the demand is there, why isn’t it happening?  

My feeling is purely that it benefits supermarkets to shift vast numbers of items quickly from the shop floor and through the tills, with no responsibility for how resource-heavy the packaging use is or what happens to it afterwards. The brands themselves favour packaging as it is a vital tool for them to stand out from the crowd.

Pre-packed units on shelves sell faster than waiting for your cheese to be cut and wrapped but what is the real cost? Less jobs, more single use packaging. Unlike a thriving local market, ‘scan and go’ culture also cuts the human contact out of your weekly shop.  

Refill culture
Shifting to a refill culture: A price worth paying?

The recent BBC programme What are we feeding our kids? focused on ultra processed foods that make up huge swathes of the supermarket shelves, and was highly critical of this deeply unhealthy “food landscape”. We may gain a few extra minutes through how we shop but lose access to better food, generating 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year in the process. 

Supermarkets have the space, transport networks, infrastructure and buying power that could be a real force for good – but the current system just isn’t serving us anymore.

Some companies are making inroads; coffee and oat milk supplier Minor Figureshas been installingoat milk refill vending machines which they say since September 2020 has helped save over 15,000 cartons. The Co-op and Waitrose have both trialled stores with zero waste refill areas, Sainsbury’s has pledged to cut plastic packaging by50 per cent by 2025 and other major supermarket chains have said similar. 

That still leaves a huge amount of plastic in our shops – even while many consumers are shifting back to eating healthier less processed food, and enjoying being part of the upsurge in home cooking from scratch during lockdown. 

Independent stores are way ahead, starting with theUKs first zero waste shop on Totnes high street, Earth.Food.Love, they are springing up countrywide.

The country’s largest zero waste supermarket The Clean Kiloin Birmingham states that they saved nearly 130,000 pieces of plastic from potentially entering the environment in just one year. Imagine if this was replicated across all retailers!

Alongside the retailers providing the opportunity to shop via refills, we also need to work on our own mindset. Surely the minor inconvenience of taking containers with us to shops is a worthy price to pay for our part in turning off the plastic tap?

It’s time to make our voices heard and call on the government to phase out non-essential single-use plastics now, alongside creating a joined up, nationwide recycling system that is truly fit for purpose rather than just outsourcing our pollution.  

Let’s choose to use our consumer spending power to shop in a way that supports ethical, low plastic business growth and healthier food systems; comment and share your best refill retailers here.  

11 Comments

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  1. Zero waste is definitely the way forward on many items and a very different way to purchase products, completely customer led.
    There is a wonderful zero waste shop in Tiverton, The House of Green and they now have a Riverford Organic Dairy Kefir and yogurt dispenser and are looking to install a milk dispenser if all goes well.. The House of Green have fabulous products arranged in a light airy space. There is plenty of help and support offered from the shop owners to first time buyers who have forgotten to bring paper bags and reusable containers; it’s well worth a visit and take a kilner-jar and fill up with organic Greek style yogurt or kefir while you are there .

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    1. Great to hear that those dairy refills are available for yoghurt kefir – imagine how many plastic yoghurt pots would be replaced if refills were widely available.

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  2. Caterham is a small town in Surrey and Pedricks Zero-waste was a life saver for many during the pandemic. The owner changed her operation completely so they could meet customers needs and feed those isolating. She has a wine refill as well as local milk and eggs, household goods and locally spun wool.

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    1. Brilliant stuff! So many small, local zero waste stores really were a lifeline for many during lockdown.

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    2. Why is there not one in Newton Abbot? It used to be a market town and is near Totnes!

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  3. Supermarkets could surely now install water refill stations, stop selling water in plastic bottles and sell more reusable bottles – couldn’t they? There was a call for this in 2019! But people need to stop buying water as well – how to achieve this?

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    1. Absolutely spot on – and in a country with readily available, clean water supplies there is no excuse. As to changing behaviours on this, City To Sea’s Refill campaign has an app that lists places you can refill your water bottles and where there are any public water fountains https://www.refill.org.uk/.

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  4. Festina lente, or hurry slowly. Successful changes happen gradually and without alienating those who can’t change because of their legitimate circumstances, lack of aspiration, or who need to be convinced by seeing the majority adopters ahead of them.

    There is a refill shop in my town, and bless them for keeping going, especially during the last year. The shop is quite a long and unpleasant walk from my house, inaccessible on public transport, and I do not have access to a car. So I have little incentive (apart from virtue) to spend two hours going there. But were my major supermarket weekly delivery shop to start introducing really basic options to save the price on refillable milk, juice, flour containers I’d be on them like a shot.

    Refillable should not be limited to urban, chi-chi, specialist. This puts people off. It needs to spread like a benevolent fungus over everything.

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    1. Refillable should be the norm rather than the exception – but with supermarkets and manufacturers lagging so far behind on this, changes need to pick up pace. The true cost of unnecessary single use plastic is not being taken into account – but the government is not showing signs of leading on the changes we need to be happening now.

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  5. A few years ago I was on holiday in northern France. I went into a smallish supermarket during that holiday and was surprised to find refill options on many products. So far ahead of British supermarkets who are only ‘trialling’ this system. To me, what supermarkets are doing is dragging their feet. Just get on with it, it’s better for the planet.

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    1. Really interesting that is is pretty standard in supermarkets there – and no reason for us not to be the same.

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