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“Refilleries” give consumers a way to reuse plastic bottles and cut waste

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Samantha Keough browses a shelf lined with plastic-free products.

Samantha Keough browses the plastic-free products at Lite Foot, a mobile refillery that helps customers reuse containers instead of throwing out plastic. Emily Jones/WABE

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Outside a Savannah, Georgia, apartment building on a recent evening, next to a food truck serving up po’boys, is a small box truck emblazoned with green leaves. Inside are wooden shelves of reusable cleaning products and a wall of big pump bottles.

This is the Lite Foot Co., which owner Katie Rodgers-Hubbard calls a “refillery.”

“We just help you kind of transition out of plastic,” she said. “We weigh the containers before and after and then everything’s just by ounce, so you can get a little bit, you can get a lot.”

That way, when customers need new shampoo, face wash or dish soap, instead of throwing out the old plastic bottle and buying a new one, they can just refill it. Refilling a 16-ounce bottle with shampoo costs just over $19. 

This isn’t exactly a new idea — people used to be able to get glass Coca-Cola bottles refilled at the grocery store. But businesses are turning to this old solution as they and their customers look for ways to combat the climate crisis.

Rodgers-Hubbard takes her refillery truck to local farmers markets and food truck events. And the idea seems to be taking hold. After just over a year in business, she’s getting ready to open a brick-and-mortar store. There, she plans to offer workshops on other sustainable practices, like composting and mending clothes instead of throwing them out.

“My whole goal is to make sustainability simple and accessible for people,” she said.

That’s the appeal for customer Samantha Keough, who said she’s glad to find a local shop to help her reuse plastic bottles instead of ordering plastic-free products online that then have to be shipped from far away.

“Bringing in products from elsewhere just has such a big carbon impact,” Keough said.

Single-use plastic has a huge carbon footprint too. Rodgers-Hubbard said using less helps reduce the use of fossil fuels like gas and oil that make climate change worse.

“There’s so much fossil fuel that goes into the production and then also the recycling of plastic,” she said. “And so our goal should be to use things that are meant to last.”

And plastic does play a big part in warming the planet, according to Jessica Wahl of Environment Georgia.

“On our current trajectory, by 2030, plastic production will be responsible for the same amount of climate warming pollution as 295 coal-fired power plants,” she said.

To help people reduce their plastic use, stores around the country are adopting the refillery model, including sustainable beauty shop Fig & Flower in Atlanta. Owner Rachel Taylor said this does more than cut down carbon use.

“We have all this plastic going into the ocean, and then you have microplastics,” she said. “So by just keeping your bottle and reusing it over and over and over again, you’re just not putting as much plastic out there.”

In the grand scheme of a global crisis, individuals and small businesses reusing and refilling containers is just one step. But Rodgers-Hubbard said she hopes this business model can influence others.

“Every decision you make, the things that you spend money on, it sends messages to the people who are producing it,” she said.

She said there’s a clear market for more sustainable products — and that should be an incentive for other companies to get on board.

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with WABE and the nonprofit media organization Grist.

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