We try out some of the Zero- and low-waste shops in the North West
Some people will remember the ‘weigh and save’ or ‘scoop and save’ concept from long ago. The trendier term is 'zero waste', though many prefer the plainer ‘refill shop’. Whichever term you embrace, the concept of minimising plastic packaging by refilling existing containers is taking hold, thanks to the ever-scarier state of the planet. In practice, this means towers of dried goods in nifty pump dispensers, as well as cleaning products, drinks and more in shops that are spouting up all over the North West.
Beautifully wrapped gifts in ten layers of plastic, bubble wrap, laminated cardboard, tape. The house looked like a snowdrift everyday
The refill revolution started (at least in the North West) in a shop in Ramsbottom. Like many people, Abbie Sellers, the owner of Plentiful (formerly Fulfilled), had become increasingly worried by the environmental impact of plastic packaging. She told Recycle for Greater Manchester: "Blue Planet II had us in tears, then there was the horrific turtle nose and straw video, the banning of microbeads, the 5p carrier bag charge, and now the huge amounts of pressure and small changes we’re seeing with big corporations. The #zerowaste movement is growing too. There are plastic-free shops popping up all over the UK. It’s a really exciting time, and I just hope it gets more and more mainstream."
Since then, a plethora of zero or low-waste options have mushroomed seemingly overnight. Interestingly they seem to be flourishing in towns with independent shopping rather than in the city centre. Ramsbottom, Prestwich, Heaton Mersey and more are all home to thriving small businesses that put their values at the centre of their retail models.
I asked Lucy, a recent convert, about what inspired her to try and cut down and shop zero waste. She told me: "We realised just how much unnecessary packaging we created when our son came along. Beautifully wrapped gifts in ten layers of plastic, bubble wrap, laminated cardboard, tape. The house looked like a snowdrift everyday. We didn’t start out to do refills really, just to be a bit more conscious of how much plastic we consumed and threw away. We felt if we considered what we bought we might be able to nip it in the bud at source."
Lucy also told me that personal care and cleaning products are next on her hit list: "At the moment we are still working through the products we have in the house. We didn’t realise how many half bottles of shower gel and washing up liquid we had. When they’re gone we then decide what to do next. We’ve been using shampoo bars from Lush, which are a revelation, we smell like a posh hotel every day! Cleaning products have come next, we used to go to Costco so the huge tubs took some using up. Now we’ve done it though I think we will be a bit more organised. It’s really easy and the products we’ve found (ecover) smell great and work well."
The Stretford Food Hall, as recommended by Lucy, seems to have the concept nailed. If food shopping is going to be slightly more complicated, and slightly more expensive (more on this later) then it might as well be what marketers term ‘an experience’. Something about the layout, studded with houseplants, meant the refill station was less utilitarian and more insta-chic. I felt kind of cool, even though I was only picking up some pulses. Yes those motivations might be superficial and selfish, but to be honest if I’m going to change my habits then it’s the stick of climate emergency in combination with the carrot of millennial gloss (and a good coffee afterwards) that is most effective.
Annoyingly I had forgotten to bring containers (this would become a recurring theme) but they had brown papers bags on hand for the less-prepared. The only downside was that one of the bags split as I was unpacking my shopping so, while I didn’t lose much from my hauls of brown rice and chickpeas, I would definitely recommend bringing your own, more robust, packaging.
Speaking of brown rice, let's compare the price in Tesco, just minutes up the road from Stretford Food Hall. An own-brand 1kg bag was £1.50, while the same amount would cost £1.80 from the Food Hall. A difference of 30p does add up over time but on the other hand, at Tesco you are committed to buying a kilo - here you can buy the exact amount you need which is really handy for spices and more specialist ingredients. While independent businesses are always going to be on the back foot when compared to the big retailers on price, some of the basics do work out favourably. The Good Life in Heaton Mersey, for example, deliberately sets out to price match Tesco because owner Shelley Brown believes it is crucial that this kind of shopping is accessible to everyone, not just the comfortably off.
Another issue is choice. These tiny shops can’t possibly compete with the supermarkets on choice can they? For instance, I did see one person moaning on Facebook about not being able to source organic pasta from a refill shop and my eyes nearly rolled out of my head. So when a few days later, browsing the One Small Step stall on Altrincham Market, I was delighted to see several types of organic pasta as well as more personal products such as toothpaste tablets and mooncups. It’s been my experience that there has been everything I wanted from all of the refill shops I visited, just not necessarily in the same shop.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their ethos, refill shops seem to quickly become a fixture in the community too. When I popped into Village Greens in Prestwich, customers were clearly regulars who had dropped in for a chat as well as their shopping. The shop is often a hub for community initiatives, for instance currently collecting used T-shirts for Prestwich Arts Festival. They are also active on social media too, announcing giveaways and samples that are quickly snapped up by locals.
Though it’s specialist refill shops that have been under the spotlight here, it’s worth remembering there are other ways of bringing the refill spirit into your life. Shops and cafes are increasingly offering to refill water bottles and Manchester Food and Drink Festival has made the idea a central part of this year’s festival. The idea of more water fountains around town is also being explored. Another idea is switching back to milk in glass bottles and also lots of butchers and fishmongers will consider requests to use your own containers instead of their wrapping. Many street food stalls will do the same.
In dipping my toe into the world of zero-waste shopping (and not fully succeeding most of the time), I’ve learned that preparation, organisation and dedication are key – qualities I do not possess in great measure even on a good day - but being a bit flaky seems like a weak excuse not to do my bit.
I’ve also realised that a lot of people are interested in zero-waste shopping – one of the most frequent comments I heard was "I wish a refill shop would open near me, then I’d go all the time." Supermarkets are slowly taking note of this appetite, but it’s difficult to turn a juggernaut on a sixpence and consumers are wary of big businesses trying to appear on trend without really changing their practices. One small retailer told the Guardian that if supermarkets do ever get really good at it she will happily give up and do something else because the battle will have been won. But I think she will be in business for a long time yet.
Refill shops and resources:
Plastic Free Weigh, Knutsford Market
Village Greens, 1 Longfield Centre, Prestwich
The Good Life, 472 Didsbury Road,Heaton Mersey, Stockport
Day Zero, 30 High St, Buxton
One Small Step, Altrincham Market
McCalls, Unit 6-7 Church Street, city centre
Plentiful, 8 Silver Street, Ramsbottom
Small Good Thing, 29 Church Road, Bolton
Ancoats General Store, 57 Great Ancoats Street, city centre
Stretford Food Hall, Chester Road, Stretford
Want Not Waste, University of Manchester
Village Stores, Levenshulme
Laundry and personal care refills only
Hulme Community Garden Centre, 28 Old Birley Street, Hulme M15 5RF,
Sustainable Shed, Levenshulme
Eighth Day, Oxford Road, city centre