So, you're thinking of visiting Refills on the Road to stock up on some plastic-free essentials, but you're not sure quite what to expect. That's ok, read on - all will become clear!
The business was founded in July 2019, and started off selling plastic-free items like deodorant, bamboo toothbrushes, produce bags, and so on. A few weeks later we started offering refills on cleaning products, and on October 1 we launched food refills. In December we fitted out the inside of our van so it is now a little shop on wheels, saving loads of time setting up and taking down the shop. That means you might find us coming to your village for a few hours!
How does it work?
All of the food and liquid refills are sold by weight and dispensed into a container supplied by you, the customer. We put your container on the scale, zero it off, fill the container, and you pay for the weight of the contents (by zeroing the scale we removed the weight of the container). Our shop isn't self-serve for a couple of reasons - one, we're very small as a mobile business and we usually work with one simple scale that doesn't print (plastic) labels. And two, to maintain the highest level of food hygiene that we can. We have a Food Hygiene Rating of 5 from Derbyshire Dales District Council.
A couple of things to note:
- Once it's in your container, it's yours. We aren't allowed to transfer food from your container back into ours - it's unhygienic and risks contaminating our stock.
- You can instruct us to "give me x grams", "Fill it up / fill it half way", "Give me two scoops", "Give me £X worth" ... We're happy to put a little bit in and you can always ask for more.
What type of containers should you bring?
The question we are often asked is what type of containers to bring and the honest answer is, anything you're happy you can get home with safely! Okay, it's not quite that simple when it comes to liquids, but we'll come to that.
Examples of containers people bring:
- Kilner style jars, jam jars
- Plastic food storage containers
- Resealable plastic bags, old bread bags with ties, paper bags
- Cloth drawstring bags
- Biscuit tins
- Whisky tubes - you know the tube a bottle of whisky comes in? They are great for spaghetti!
When deciding on a container, ask:
1. Will it be easy to fill? We pour or scoop contents, so wide mouth jars are best. We do have some small spoons for spices. We also have two sizes of funnel to help avoid spills, but the smallest opening is still a couple of inches.
2. Will you get it home without spilling it everywhere? Make sure you've remembered the lid, it fits, and closes securely.
3. How much is it going to weigh once it's full? If you have a Pinterest-worthy kitchen at home full of glass Kilner jars, it might not be practical to lug them all down to the van. Think about bringing an empty bag that you can then decant into your jars once you get home.
What brand of cleaning products do you sell?
We stock cleaning refills from two UK-based suppliers offering a closed-loop refill system. One is SESI, a social enterprise in Oxfordshire. Their products are manufactured for them by a third party and are all biodegradeable, vegan, cruelty-free, and safe for septic systems. Unfortunately their manufacturer had to close during the lockdown and we weren't able to get any product from them, so we added a second supplier, Miniml. Miniml is a small business based in Keighley, West Yorkshire that manufactures their own products; they are also biodegradeable, vegan, cruelty-free, safe for septic systems and offered on a closed-loop refill system.
We used to stock shampoos, conditioners, and shower gels from Suma and Faith in Nature, but we stopped because they don't offer a closed-loop system - this means the jerrycans that they send their products in are always brand new plastic. They will accept empty containers back from stockists but they only recycle them, they do not clean and refill them, like SESI and Miniml.
Did you know that Ecover and Method were bought by SC Johnson, who still tests on animals in other areas of the business? For that reason, there is an ethical boycott against these brands. I would rather see a bottle refilled with Ecover product than disposed to landfill or sent for recycling, but SESI products work (I wouldn't sell them if they didn't) and are less expensive, so bring your Ecover and Method bottles to us and save yourself some money.
What kind of bottles do I need to bring for liquids?
Short answer: clean and dry ones, if you want the best results on your first refill. We prefer to fill bottles like-for-like. That means putting laundry liquid in a laundry liquid bottle and toilet cleaner in a toilet cleaner bottle. We reserve the right to refuse to fill your bottle if we are concerned about adverse chemical reactions - so we won't put shampoo in a toilet cleaner bottle!
Don't have a bottle? We sometimes have 500ml or 1-litre new bottles for sale. But before buying a new plastic bottle, why not ask around to your friends or neighbours to find out if there are any empties headed for the recycling bin that you could have? Give it a rinse and try to let it dry - bottles with water in the bottom usualy end up frothing and foaming and we often can't fully fill them. We'll put a label on telling you what's in the bottle (if you don't want one that's ok but it's at your own risk - you're also welcome to take a photo of the label).
If you've filled your bottle with us once and you're coming back for a top-up of the same stuff, it's ok if there's still some product in the bottle - because we use the scale, you won't end up paying again for what's already in there and the chance of there being any reactions are low.
Is all your food organic?
Nope. We want to help people change their habits, and there is a perception that shopping at zero-waste stores is expensive - something we are challenging! Yes, some items are more expensive than at your local supermarket, but other items you'll pay less for.
We used to stock a lot more organic food than we do now, but during the lockdown in March our main supplier of organic products refused to take orders from small businesses. We shifted to buying from a small family-owned wholefoods business and have stuck with them ever since. We have spoken to them about carrying more organic lines and they are looking into it.
What about gluten-free cereals and pasta?
We have gluten-free oats and pasta for sale, along with a number of foods that are naturally gluten-free.
What about allergens?
Allergens is a topic that sometimes keeps us up at night. Bottom line: if you, or someone you are sharing a kitchen with, have a life-threatening or severe food allergy, please do not shop at bulk stores. Any bulk store, not just ours.
In our case, we have a very small space to work in. Maybe one day we will grow to a size that will allow us to have totally separate containers, scoops, funnels, and packaging areas but we aren't there yet. We are transparent with this because it is not worth a serious Epi-Pen incident, or risk of death just to reduce some plastic packaging.
In bulk stores where customers serve themselves you are even more at risk - so please, just don't go there!
Do you take card payments?
Yes! We use a system called Square for this. It acts as inventory management and payment processing, so we're not on Facebook while we're serving you - it's actually doing all the maths for us and keeping track of what's being sold. You will see it on your statement as something like SQUARE*REFILLSOT. You can pay using contactless or chip and pin. Don't worry about transaction fees - the small percentage we pay is offset by the time and fuel required to travel to a bank or post office to deposit the cash. There is a minimum of £1 for card transactions - that's imposed by Square, not by us.
We hope that has answered most of your questions - please come and speak to us about anything else you'd like to know. We look forward to meeting you!