If you’ve ever walked by a “zero waste store” and peeked inside, you may have been thoroughly overwhelmed! You may have seen things like scales and tons of empty bottles and jars. Looking at a giant barrel of soap with a pump attached may have filled you with anxiety at the thought of doing it wrong and making a gigantic mess.
If that’s you, you’re totally not alone. SO MANY people have expressed their worries to me about these situations, and I know several people who won’t even go inside due to that barrier. It can definitely feel daunting and intimidating. I’ve even been the one to spill soap everywhere (more than once, if I’m honest). 😉
Lucky for you, I’ve learned from my experiences and have designed a super easy guide to make your experience way better!
Since 2017, I have shopped this way and brought countless people along with me. I even worked within a zero waste store for a while and had the chance to support even more people who were new to this concept every day!
So, trust me when I say — you can do this.
It may feel unfamiliar and a little awkward at first (what new concept doesn’t?), but you’ll totally get the hang of it. Follow this guide and you’ll feel like a pro in no time!
But First, Why?
Before I get into the simple steps of refilling your products, let’s look at the big picture. You may be wondering why these zero waste stores are even popping up and why they’re important. Can’t we just go to Target and buy one of their “green” products? (not to hate on just Target, haha)
Allow me to explain one term you may have heard recently and then give you the benefits of supporting zero waste stores.
“Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. [It] is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly… Greenwashing is a play on the term “whitewashing,” which means using misleading information to gloss over bad behavior.”(source)
Basically, not everything that claims to be “green” is actually doing any good for the environment. And actually, many brands are doing worse with this claim.
I’ll create an entire post dedicated to this topic in the near future, but for now, feel free to check out these examples if you want to know more:
Now, here are my top reasons for why we should support zero waste stores:
The option of refilling products in bulk is much more efficient when it comes to the packaging and distribution of said products. It’s usually not a 100% zero waste option — it involves some kind of packaging and transportation. But it’s a way better alternative!! We don’t need to manufacture individual plastic containers and then thrown them away after a single use. Consider this: “more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. The cardboard that envelops perfumes, serums and moisturizers contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest each year.” (source)
It’s worth noting, even if some companies accept certain plastics to be recycled, they may be given one more use before they end up as trash anyway.
And the majority of these packages just go straight to the landfill due to hardships of their recycling process. Refilling your ONE bottle/container over and over just makes so much more sense! AND, it’s usually more cost-efficient for you because you’re not paying for unnecessary and wasteful packaging.
On top of this, many zero waste stores are working really hard to make the most of the packaging they inherently need to consume.
For example, The Zero Market in Denver, CO partners with several companies to send back many bulk containers to be sanitized, refilled, and reused as long as possible. They also donate many vessels to be turned into something else, like rainwater barrels and composting tumblers.
If you have access to a zero waste store in your area, be sure to ask them what they’re doing to prolong the life-cycles of their containers. And if they’re not doing much yet, you can be the one to urge them to do more!
My final point on the benefits of zero waste stores is that they usually partner with local vendors for many products. Your purchases, therefore, often support several small businesses and local communities all in one trip! This also decreases the amount of emissions wasted in the transportation of locally made products. Win-win!
If you’re interested in learning more about this bigger picture, check out these resources:
- Info on zero waste stores popping up around the world
- Info on the zero waste movement gaining recent momentum and actionable steps you can take to support
NOW, let’s get into your guide for an awesome and easy zero waste shopping experience!
This post is the second of a two-part series on creating the ultimate “kit” to shop with less waste. Your kit includes physical items as well as mental tips for the best zero-waste trip. It can easily be customized to fit your personal life, access to resources in your area, and your budget.
Take what you can from the ideas below and apply them to your own life. When you’re done reading this post about bulk refills at a zero waste store, be sure to check out the first post on zero waste grocery shopping!
So, without further ado: 3 Simple Steps to Bulk Refill Shopping!
1. Research Zero Waste Stores In Your Area
You may already be familiar with these types of stores if you have some in your area. You could be totally unaware of any existing locations. Or you may know for sure that your area doesn’t have any zero waste stores YET, but you will definitely want to be on the lookout.
No matter where you fall on this spectrum, you will want to do the following:
- Use the Zero Waste Home Bulk Finder to locate bulk stores near you! You may be surprised by some of the shops that pop up. Some of them are designated zero waste stores, but others specialize in a specific bulk selection (e.g. spices only, or loose leaf teas, etc). You may not have access to all types of refillable items, but every little bit counts.
Once you’ve found a location that makes sense to visit (don’t bother driving all over tarnation to get to one — that kinda defeats the purpose), you’re ready for the next step.
2. Bring / Buy Containers And Bags
This step requires just a bit of planning. If you know the store you’ll visit provides olive oil, for example, you’ll want to bring a sensible container. You could bring your empty (or even partially-filled) olive oil bottle. You could bring a mason jar, an up-cycled pickle jar you washed out to reuse, an empty water bottle… Really, the options are endless! Either bring the exact container you want to fill, or bring something that will do the job and transfer the contents into something else when you get home.
Olive oil is one of the many things you may be able to refill at your zero waste store. When you search with the bulk finder above, you may stumble upon a spice shop, tea shop, stores with household cleaners, food, beauty products, and more.
If you’re unsure of what types of containers to bring, try calling ahead to get some advice.
Some containers you may not have thought about include:
- Your hefty gallon jug for laundry detergent
- Empty liquor bottles
- Coffee cups
- Big, washed out, plastic yogurt containers
- Any cleaned jar that once held salsa, pasta sauce, peanut butter, whatever → that’s basically free to you!
- Plastic shampoo, conditioner, and soap bottles
- On and on and on and on
Just because social media often presents “zero waste” in a very pretty way, with lots of cute glass jars and absolutely no plastic in sight — that doesn’t mean this is the ideal picture. Plastic itself isn’t always the enemy when we are the ones constantly creating more only to end up in the landfills (or oceans). So, if you’ve got plastic containers that can be given an endless life through constant refilling — go for it!
If, however, you don’t have a good container for something or you want to invest in something new, these stores often have a selection for you. You may be able to buy some nice glass or aluminum bottles, some mason jars, cosmetic jars, dropper or spray bottles, etc.
Don’t forget to always check your local thrift stores or secondhand apps! There is SO much out there, often in really great condition, that deserves to be used rather than taking up space.
For easy transportation, I’d definitely recommend bringing your own reusable bags, boxes, baskets, or whatever works for you!
3. Fill ‘Em Up!
Once you’re at the zero waste store, it’s time to tackle the task that seems intimidating to so many… Filling your containers!
Don’t worry, it’s really not that bad. And if you make a mistake, no worries! You’ll learn from the experience and do it differently the next time. Plus the employees should be prepared for this. 😉
When you fill something, you’ll want to know how much you filled so you’re only charged for the amount of product you put inside the container. Typically, the products you want to buy will have a price listed per ounce/pound (or other unit of measurement). For example, you may want to fill shampoo and salt. Shampoo may be $0.25 cents per ounce whereas salt may be $1.50 per pound because a pound equals a whole lot more product.
One really nice thing about buying in bulk is you can buy as little or as much as you want! Do whatever fits within your budget.
First, you’ll want to know the difference between weight and volume. If you are filling a liquid and can find the volume of your container (how much it holds), you should use this as your measurement.
Volume is typically more accurate than weight when it comes to liquids. Let me give you some examples of how to find this:
- Your container may have a label that says “16 oz” or something like that. That means when the container is full, it holds 16 ounces.
- If the label was removed in the process of cleaning your container, Google is always handy! You could simply Google something like “salsa jar volume” and then look at the results under “Images” or “Shopping” and find which jar matches your own. You should be able to look at the image and see if it holds 16 ounces or 25 ounces and so on.
- Some containers are metered on the side — easy! This means they have lines that show you how many ounces you’re filling up to. You can then stop pouring when you hit the 8oz line or the 20oz line or however much you want.
You’ll want to go by weight if you cannot find the volume…
…OR if you’re filling a container that isn’t empty and need to subtract the weight of the current content from what you put inside. You also want to use weight if you’re filling a solid item (like salt) because some are heavier than others.
When you choose this way of measurement, you will be subtracting the weight of the container (and anything that may be in it) in order to pay for the weight of the product you put inside. Here’s how you do this:
- Find a scale within the store (usually easy to access for customers or behind the counter for the employees to do instead)
- Weigh the container (whether empty or partially-full)
- Record the current weight of the container on your phone or by writing it onto the container itself. These stores usually have a way to label this using a wax pencil, crayon, or something similar. You can also take a picture with your phone!
- Fill your container with the product you want
- Weigh the container again yourself OR let the cashier do it at checkout! Either way, the original weight will be subtracted and you will know exactly how much product you have purchased.
- Example: You bring a bottle with a little shampoo inside. You weigh the bottle and record 15 ounces on the lid. After you fill it with more shampoo, the bottle then weighs 35 ounces. The cashier or you would subtract: 35 – 15 = 20. This means you will only pay for 20 ounces of shampoo because you took away the original weight.
Now, here are some pro-tips for filling your containers like a zero waste boss!
- Pay attention to how the store’s products are displayed. Are there specific directions written somewhere? Are their tools next to certain products like a funnel or a scoop? When in doubt, never worry about asking for help! You’ll learn something for the next time.
- If you brought a really narrow-mouthed bottle, definitely use (or ask for) a funnel so you don’t spill on yourself.
- If your bottle or jar doesn’t need a funnel but isn’t very wide-mouthed, put the pump into your bottle and hold it at an angle (see pictures above). This creates more space for the pump and doesn’t allow the product to clog up the opening of your bottle while you’re trying to fill it.
If you do happen to spill, it’s ok! Not the end of the world. This happens all the time and the shop likely has some towels they can give you. You learn from trial and error, as with most things in life, and you’ll continue to get better with each try.
As one of my former co-workers at a zero waste store told me: “Refilling soap levels the playing field. You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, whatever, and you will likely still end up with some soap on your shoe at some point.” 😉
Test Out Your Handy-Dandy Kit At A Zero Waste Store!
Now that you know what items to bring and the tips that will enhance your experience, you’re ready to try it out! Be sure to read Part One of this series so you can apply this to your grocery shopping as well. That post doesn’t only talk about buying in bulk because there are SO MANY other important ways you can minimize unnecessary waste and decrease your carbon footprint when shopping.
Still feel a little overwhelmed? I get it! If you’re in the surrounding Denver area, I’m available to take you on a zero waste shopping field trip! I’ll prepare you to the best of my ability, personally guide your experience, answer any questions you may have, and I give you a couple free things, too! On top of that, every month offers a special or a discount!
If this is something you’re interested in, check out my Contact page for more information regarding my services. Or just reach out with the contact info provided there and we’ll customize something to fit your needs. I look forward to hearing from you and supporting your zero waste journey!
Remember, the most important thing is to take one step at a time. Do what you can do and give it the best you’ve got.
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
You’ve got this.