Zero-waste Refill is simple and fun!


Zero-waste Refill is simple and fun!

Zero-waste Low-waste is simple but not easy.

Nothing is truly easy.

Even brushing your teeth everyday is not easy… until it becomes your habit.

Going low waste is the same deal. It’s a lifestyle change that, once becomes a habit, is simple. And when you approach it with lightness and curiosity, FUN!

A staff refilling at The Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staples in Vancouver, BC, Canada
A staff refilling a container with the good stuff at The Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staple in Vancouver BC.

Guilt is optional

I agree with Verena Erin at My Green Closet:

Sustainability movements should not be motivated by guilt.

- Verena Erin

If you ask me: don't let anyone guilt you into doing anything. Instead, do it for the empowerment.

Many go through phases in our journey:

Phase 1 - “Wake Up”: We learned that landfills are overflowing and waterways are tamed with micro-plastics. We’re excited to discover a healthier and kinder way to live. We do more cooking, gardening, sewing, and DIY’ing. We’re on fire! And, dare I say, consider those not on board “pedestrian”.

Phase 2 - “Damn, this is hard. But I’ll show you what I’m made of.” With determination, we soldier on.

Phase 3 - “Sucked in too deep”:  Before we know it, we’re buried deep in DIY’s that we couldn’t keep up. We feel guilty when we can’t or don’t want to go to the farmer’s market. Every decision becomes a judgmental rumination.

Finally, as we’re human...

Phase 4 - “Fu*k it, I’m just gonna do what normal people do and shop how normal people shop”.

Many routes to go green

The truth is, there’s no need to take the word “zero” in zero-waste literally.

You could. If that’s your jam, rock on!

Most of us, however, are not there (yet). Nor is it mandatory.

I love the way Zero-Waste Chef Anne-Marie Bonneau puts it:

We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.

- Anne-Marie Bonneau

Be gentle with yourself.

We’re in this for the long haul people!

 Everyone of us can start today with the low-hanging fruits:

  • Ask for coffee in a mug.
  • Bring a water bottle and skip that iced-frappe  - it’s loaded with sugar anyway.
  • Have a reusable shopping bag with you. Mine is lightweight and rolls up into a ball smaller than my fist. It’s in my handbag at all times ready to serve.

The next step is to shop bulk.

But first, a quick trip through time.

Then and now: Go back to go forward

Single-used plastic became commercially viable in the 1960s. By mid 1980’s, it’s ubiquitous in most countries.

I.e. If you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, plastic bags and packaged goods are not only the norm, but the only way to shop.

However, when we go back to, say, the 1950’s - just one or two generations ago, it’s a very different story.

Julie and Teresa, cofounders of Port Moody Refillery, share some of their customers’ experience:

People shopped at general stores where products were behind the counter and you had to ask for what you want.

The milkman dropped off your milk and picked up your empty bottles.

My mother-in-law grew up in rural China. She remembers bringing bunches of vegetables home tied with 咸水草, literally means salt water grass. Google it - you’ll see how it was done.

In many ways, that’s the ideal “packaging”: compostable, local, and organic. No plastics in sight.

But how?

Refill stores are popping up in neighbourhoods around the world.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Bring in your clean, empty bottle or container. You can also buy a bottle or jar from the refill store.
  2. Tare the weight of your empty container.
  3. Fill the container with goodness

You can also get containers from the store. Vancouver Zero Waste Refill Store The Soap Dispensary
You can purchase empty containers from the refill store, but bring your own if you already have some kicking around!

Do an online search for “zero waste refill” + your city.

For example, searching for “zero waste refill Vancouver” points me to:

  • The Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staples, Vancouver’s first dedicated refill shop since 2011 and
  • Nada, which started as a pop up, borrowing space from Patagonia. Nada now has a beautiful, permanent location in E Broadway.

A zero-waste refill store in the quaint small community of Port Moody
Port Moody Refillery - A zero-waste refill store in the quaint small community of Port Moody

Granted, it’s more convenient for those living in major cities to find zero-waste stores for refill (looking at you, Hilary at North Phase in Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory).

However, many businesses not branded as zero-waste are participating in the movement.

Case in point:

Anise Modern Apothecary, a green beauty store stocks with the most dreamy plant-based, non-toxic health & wellness products in Burlington Ontario have a refill station for many of their best-selling products.

Consider Pomme Natural Market, with locations in Coquitlam and Nanaimo. Pomme will tare the weights of your containers before you shop at their bulk bins so you don’t need to use their plastic bags and ties.

Refill station at Anise Modern Apothecary in Burlington, ON

Happy place refill station at Anise Modern Apothecary in Burlington, ON. PHoto credit: Anise Modern Apothecary

Go easy when you’re new to shopping refill

Shopping refill requires us to change our habits, and habit-change is hard. It takes time.

Jolene, founder of Public Goods and Services in Seattle, suggests starting with dish soap, laundry soap, or hand soap. All of these typically come in plastic bottles that can be reused over and over again.

 Jolene Dobson - Owner of Zero Waste Refill Store Public Goods and Services in Seattle
Jolene of Seattle's Public Goods and Services - drop by and say hi when you're in the area. Photo credit: Public Goods and Services

Explore new ingredients and products at a refill shop

  • Bring a tiny jar to get a tiny bit of that natural deodorant you’ve been dying to try.
  • Find the perfect conditioner for your hair type.
  • Charcoal toothpaste for your teeth?
  • Amla oil for your hair?

Don't know what's Amla oil? It's new to me as well.

Amla oil is an oil immersion from the Indian Gooseberry fruit. It's used in traditional Ayurvedic treatments for strengthening and conditioning hair. Bring yourself to The Soap Dispensary (with an empty container!) to learn the full story and discover your new favourite.

And it's not just for bringing home useful stuff.

Many zero-waste stores also host workshops ranging from composting (vemicomposting if you’re apartment bound), fermentation (sourdough, kombucha, yogurt), and DIY projects (skincare, candle making, soap making).

It’s full of possibilities and FUN!

Zero-waste refill stores also supply eco-friendly products, workshops, and helpful resources.

Zero-waste refill stores also supply eco-friendly products, workshops, and helpful resources. Photo credit: Public Goods and Services

Whatever you do, you are helping

Every little bit counts. The fact that you're still reading means you care.

Knowledge leads to action. The good news is more and more people are aware of the impact of excessive consumption and waste. When everyone do just a step better, we're moving forward.

If you're a parent with 3 young children, work a full time job, volunteer in the community, plus a passion project on the side...

You need to hear this:

For the love of all things pretty, don't be hard on yourself.

Swapping packaged juice boxes for reusable sippy cups is making a huge difference.


It's a practice and a journey.

Now, it’s not always rainbows and unicorns.

Let's practise our empathy skill:


Pretend we run a refill store. Imagine.

  • Where/how do I find vendors who are willing and able to supply us with their products without packaging? 
  • How can my customers know which bottle is what once they get home?
  • How can I provide product information such as ingredients and directions? 

Operating a refill shop has its unique challenges.

Here’s a recent social media post from The Soap Dispensary:

What we do is labour intensive and when we don’t have enough staff, it’s just hard for us to be at our best. Due to a lack of availability of our current staff members, we will have to operate at reduced hours this week.

- The Soap Dispensary

And that's just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. I bet you burrito that zero-waste store owners and their staff don’t do it just for the money.

The reality is:

More refill shop --> more convenient --> More people will do it

With your support:

  • more stores supporting the green movement can exist and thrive,
  • more eco-friendly products can be available for the mass market, and
  • more convenient for consumers like you and me to live a more sustainable life.

I think that’s called win-win-win.

What’s your journey like? Do you have a favourite refill store? Leaving a comment below!

4 Responses


April 12, 2019

What a great post, Natalie!


April 11, 2019


You do such a great job of pointing out clear, easy, and FUN ways to reduce waste. As someone who lived in the city for a long time, and experienced various phases (as you so aptly called them) of the low-waste journey, I completely understand the challenge of going green(er). But, as you point out, there are so many ways to make a difference, to refill, to reduce, and to reuse in the Lower Mainland.

It’s funny how my commitment to low-waste living became so much more engrained when I moved out of the city. Perhaps because I am surrounded by such beauty, it’s hard not to imagine the impact we humans have on Mother Nature. Like you noted, it’s not quite as easy in smaller (or teeny) communities like mine. However, I believe that it’s possible to connect with other motivated people, like you, through social media. Those connections help motivate, empower, educate, and inspire better ways of living.

Thank you so much for sharing this and for being a great source of motivation!


April 11, 2019

Thanks Julie! That’s so true – progress not perfect!


April 10, 2019

Natalie! Thank you for your informative blog! I agree- figuring out how to reduce single use plastics is a process so it is best to start now and not wait until the system is perfect!! Thank you for sharing all your tips!

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