Woman with cotton bag shopping at refill store

Hi there! Have you thought about shopping at a refill store, but felt a little intimidated by the process? Not even sure what a refill shop is? Come on in for a beginner’s guide that will turn you into a pro in no time.

A refill store — also called a zero waste store, bulk store or refillery — is typically a small, independent shop that sells personal care items and household products without packaging.

The whole concept is growing in popularity as environmentally-conscious consumers look to reduce their plastic household waste — which we all know contributes to pollution.

  • Basically, instead of buying shampoo, body wash and dish soap in plastic containers — you bring your own empty containers to refill at the store.

Today we’re going to take a deeper dive into what refill shops sell and how to navigate them for the best shopping experience — all while keeping in mind our why: to reduce our impact on the planet.

But First…How to Find a Refill Store in Your Area
It might be tough to find a refillery near you, depending on where you live. I had been searching my area for a while — before finally finding two new refill stores. The best advice I can offer is to google: [zero waste store + Your town and state]. You can also try: [refill store + your town and state.]
(I’m still in search of an online directory; if I find one, I’ll come back and add it here.)

Each store is different, but typical products include:

  • Laundry detergent
  • Dishwasher detergent
  • All-purpose cleaners
  • Bathroom cleaners
  • Facial cleansers
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoos
  • Conditioner
  • Toothpaste
  • Soaps

Larger stores in more urban areas will usually offer bulk food items as well — such as pasta, rice, beans, lentils, nuts and cereal — just like you see at the grocery store.

It can be a little daunting when you first walk into a refill shop so you might be tempted to pop back into your local grocery store instead. But today I’m encouraging you to resist that temptation and give a refill shop a try.

For starters, you’ll see large containers with dispenser pumps filled with liquid products like dish detergent, laundry detergent and shampoo. Dry products like powders and tablets are also in large containers, with scoops for dispensing.

If you decide to buy something, you’ll need to weigh your containers two times — first when they’re empty and again after they’re filled. You’ll also need to record the weights and product numbers for anything you buy. In some cases, the process is automated and in smaller shops, store employees might do it for you.

If you feel intimidated or unsure, just ask a staff member for help. Each shop operates differently and will be happy to walk you through the process. Plus, I’ve provided a basic step-by-step guide below. It’s not as complicated as it sounds!

Refill station showing basic steps

Let’s be honest. Shopping at a refill or zero-waste store is more work than mindlessly tossing items into a grocery cart. But if you’re committed to doing more for the environment, it’s definitely worth a try.

We’ve already mentioned that the biggest reason to seek out your local refillery is to cut down on your household’s plastic waste. Many of us toss plastics and other packaging items into our recycle bins and don’t give them another thought. [I’m raising my hand here because I’m guilty of this, too!]

But we now know that recycling hasn’t lived up to its promise.

Seeing this logo on a product lulls us into thinking it will be recycled as long as we put it in the right bin.

Pollution-causing companies add that familiar recycle logo to their packaging (with various numbers, of course), which gives us the false sense that we’re “doing the right thing” when we toss it in the blue bin.

But the truth is…the vast majority of plastic isn’t recycled; it ends up in a landfill as trash. For more on this, you can start with this excellent article: Recycling Plastic is Practically Impossible — and the Problem is Getting Worse.

It has taken a while for all of this to sink in for me, to be honest. But I finally get it: we’ve adopted the mindset, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” when we need to start focusing on “Reduce, Reuse, Refill” instead.

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They sell more than you might expect.

In addition to the products mentioned above, a typical refill or zero-waste store will also offer earth-friendly supplies like bamboo toothbrushes, non-toxic candles, Swedish dishcloths and wool dryer balls, for example. Larger shops might even sell sustainable clothing.

Your selection of products will vary.

As mentioned, the stores are usually independently owned and operated, so you’ll find wide variations. If you live in a large urban area, you’re more apt to find a bigger selection of products.

If you’re in a smaller suburban or rural area, your local shop might be limited to the basics. They usually offer scented and unscented versions of most products but don’t expect to be overwhelmed with brands and choices. This leads to the next point…

You won’t find big brand names.

If you’re loyal to a particular name-brand shampoo, you’re not likely to find it at a refill store. Each store owner chooses their favorite suppliers for different reasons. One of my area shops likes to work with women-owned local businesses, for example. In general, shops focus on eco-friendly products — and big brands don’t often check that box.

You can buy as little or as much of a product as you want.

There’s great flexibility in refill stores since you’re filling your own containers. You can test out a new laundry detergent by purchasing just two ounces before committing to a larger bottle. This can be a cost-saving measure since you’re not forced into buying more than you need or want. This is one of my favorite features of shopping at a refillery!

You may save money…or not.

There’s a common assumption that environmentally friendly products are more expensive, but that’s not always true. We purchased laundry detergent at a refill store that cost 22-cents per ounce and our name-brand detergent generally retails for about 19-cents per ounce. But the refill brand was concentrated and required less, so there were cost-savings.

Shampoos might be pricier, but they’re generally salon-quality so they’re not comparable to grocery store brands. Bottom line…it’s difficult to predict if you’ll save money or not — you might have to do a little number-crunching.

You won’t get product labels or instructions.

We all know how to use toothpaste and shampoo. But if you’re buying a new cleaning product, you might want directions for how to use it. This information is usually available in the store or on their website. Just remember to ask for it before leaving the shop.

Most shops practice what they preach.

Many refill shops use a closed-loop system or circular retail practices. This means they purchase products from suppliers in large containers and return those containers to be refilled when empty. They’re committed to adding less to the waste stream, too.

They make it easier to shop more sustainably.

You can shop at places like Target® and try to read labels to make better choices — but it’s frustrating and time-consuming. Plus you won’t learn everything you need to know from a typical consumer product label.

If you shop at a refill store, however, you’ll choose from products that have already been selected because they’re more sustainable. Be sure to read more about what that means below.

You don’t need to be all-in on zero-waste living to make it worthwhile.

Shopping at a refill store isn’t an “all or nothing” commitment. It’s a way to take baby steps to greener living. If all you buy is laundry and dish detergent, that’s okay. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back…you’re still doing something tangible to reduce waste and the pollution that comes with it.

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And now…here’s the basic process:

Step-by-Step Guide to Shopping in a Refill Store

Step 1. Bring your own containers (BYOC) or purchase some there. You can use glass jars, plastic bottles, Tupperware®-type containers or paper bags for dry products. Just be sure they’re all clean and dry. If you don’t have what you need, you can purchase containers at the store or sometimes choose from a free selection left behind by other shoppers. Remember to bring your reusable shopping bags, too!

P.S. You might want to sterilize your containers at home beforehand, especially if you’re planning to buy products for your face or hair.

Step 2. Get the tare weight of your container before you start filling it. Start by weighing your empty container to get the “tare” weight. In some shops, you’ll simply press the tare button on a scale and a label will print out with the weight. In other shops, you’ll have to make note of the information yourself, using writing supplies provided on-site.

Step 3. Fill your empty containers with your products of choice. This is the fun part where you get to choose your refillable products! You’ll need to record the product information (name and/or number) as you go. In some stores, this is automated or handled by a store employee. Other times, there are supplies for you to write it down. You could also jot it in a note-taking app on your phone or snap a picture of the information from the container. The point is the cashier needs to know what you’re purchasing!

Step 4. Re-weigh and Pay. Bring your purchases to the checkout and the cashier will re-weigh your filled containers and subtract the tare or empty weight — unless this has already been done in step 3. Bottom line: you’re purchasing most items by weight and you want to pay for the product only, not the weight of the container.

Again, it’s not as complicated as it sounds in writing. The most important thing to remember is to ask for help if you need it so you don’t get frustrated.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you prepare to venture to your area refill store:

  • Visit the shop’s website first to see what types of products they offer.
  • Gather your containers and make your shopping list.
  • Remember your reusable shopping bags; you need something to carry your empty containers while you shop and something to carry it all home, of course.
  • Treat it like a sensory experience, similar to visiting a farmer’s market.
  • If staff are available, ask for a quick tour of the store before you start.
  • Remember your “why.”
  • Have fun and be open to new ideas!

It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that our individual efforts are too small to bring about meaningful change in the health of the planet. But we have a choice. We can rant against all the excess packaging used by large corporations — or we can show them what’s important to us through our buying habits.

I believe small steps do make a difference and even one item saved from a landfill is a win. Are you ready to give a refill shop a try? Let me know in the comments.

Footnote: What are sustainable products?

We talk a lot about shopping or living more sustainably on Honest and Simple. But what does that really mean? Here are some ideas from my local refill shop website, replenishrefillery.com.

  • Sustainable goods don’t directly harm the environment during production or consumption.
  • They are made from quickly regenerative + renewable materials.
  • They are compostable or biodegradable.
  • They may be made from repurposed/upcycled/refurbished materials.

Note: This article is a general overview of the refillable shopping experience. Sometimes you’ll find a refill station inside a larger retail store or your area might have a pop-up mobile van with refillable products. Some refill shops also operate by collecting a deposit on containers so you don’t have to start by bringing your own.

Let me know in the comments. Have you tried a refill shop yet or do you plan to do that soon? Was there a particular piece of information that resonated with you? I’d love to hear from you!

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I am not a licensed nutritionist, medical professional or cosmetics expert. The information provided on Honest + Simple is for general informational purposes only. The statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food + Drug Administration and are not intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease. Before making decisions about your health or other concerns, please consult a qualified professional and do not rely on this website for medical advice.

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