The zero-waste movement: how a new wave of shops is driving a refill revolution

Refills make sense. Not only does taking your old detergent bottles back to a store to be replenished help reduce plastic waste, but cutting out unnecessary new bottles makes it cheaper, too. In the case of a five-litre container of Ecover washing-up liquid, as much as 44% less expensive, based on RRP.

Ecover, one of the largest producers of ecological washing and cleaning products in Europe, first launched its refills at UK health food stores in the early 1990s. Now the option is available at 679 independent shops, while a trial of Ecover refill machines at four Waitrose stores in 2019 has been such a success that they have now become a permanent feature. The ongoing trial is part of the retailer’s Unpacked range, which is testing customers’ appetite for packaging-free shopping. It was the first time that Ecover had experimented with a refill system in a UK supermarket.

Feedback on Unpacked has been encouraging, with customers keen to see a broader range of products and happy that they were able to do their bit for the environment. In January, the Waitrose store in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, integrated packaging-free items – including Ecover washing detergent – into its regular aisles. As the trial continues, the company will consider options to further expand refills into other stores.

Quote: "We can't see our carbon emissions, but we can see an overflowing bin of single-use packaging"
Ecover Immersive 6 plastic Free ShopArtboard-3

“Since Blue Planet II aired and drew attention to the impact of plastic waste on our oceans, we’ve seen a big increase in people asking us where they can refill,” says Tom Domen, Ecover’s global head of long-term innovation. “We believe that encouraging people to reuse and refill is one of the most effective ways we can tackle the plastic pollution problem.

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“Now is the right time to drive a ‘refillution’ in the UK,” he says. “We want to help change the face of the supermarket aisle by challenging single-use plastic packaging and our disposable culture.

“Hence, we have been creating a new in-store refill system that will make refilling more convenient for shopkeepers and customers. We hope to set a new standard in the market. If we want to drive real change, we have to make refill more widely available for everybody.”

However, small, independent stores remain the natural home of refill stations. The stations first appeared in Planet Organic’s London stores in 2015, says buying director Al Overton. “Even back then it was part of a progression. We had been using compostable food-to-go containers in our cafes for many years, had removed plastic bags as early as 2009 and have always tried to sell much of our fruit and veg loose,” he says.

“Customers are looking to reduce their environmental impact, and I think the amount of plastic waste that we generate has become a very visual means of measuring that – we can’t see our carbon emissions, but we can see an overflowing bin of single-use packaging.”

A long row of refillable products in Planet Organic

Emily Byron is a regular at Planet Organic’s Muswell Hill store, where she fills up on Ecover hand soap. “Nothing should be single-use now,” she says. “We’re too informed and educated … every company owes it to the future of the planet to be looking at ways in which they can do this.”

The trick, she says, is to get into the habit of putting the empty bottles in the reusable bags that you take to the shops. As for any concerns that refilling can be messy, she says: “My 10-year-old daughter is perfectly comfortable refilling, so it can’t be that difficult.”

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Byron’s commitment to sustainability spills over into her professional life. She runs the New London Performing Arts Centre, a children’s dance, music and drama charity, which has bulk orders of refilled Ecover hand wash delivered on a regular basis.

The Real Food Company is a family-run health food shop in Alsager, Cheshire, which opened in 1990 and was quick to pioneer refills of shampoos and conditioners. “We started as soon as they became available,” says co-founder Carol Dines. “Very clearly there was the opportunity to save on loads of new packaging coming into the environment. We have some customers who are still refilling their original bottles from 20 years ago!”

Emily Byron refilling Ecover bottles
Quote: "My 10-year-old daughter is perfectly comfortable refilling, so it can't be that difficult"

For designer and upcycler Max McMurdo, who long had concerns about endless consumption, the mix of less packaging and an eco-friendly product is the perfect match. McMurdo, who lives on a houseboat at the Priory Marina in Bedford, believes the whole perception of refilling has changed. “It used to be a middle-class thing to do … but now it’s cheaper to buy your products without all of that packaging.” It’s generational, too, he says. “The younger generation look at a plastic container and question why it exists, which is fantastic.”

He agrees that a change of mindset is needed to make taking empty refill bottles to the shops second nature. “I think it’s a bit like ‘bags for life’, really,” he says. “For the first year we were constantly walking into supermarkets and leaving them in the boot of the car … it just takes a bit of getting used to.”

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In Leeds, Freddie Rawson runs Freddie’s Kitchen, a vegan takeaway where, for washing up, he uses Ecover’s lemon and aloe vera washing-up liquid. For the business, a catering company delivers large, refilled packs directly to the kitchen, but on the domestic front Rawson and his partner are regulars at the Ecover refill station at Kirkgate Market in Leeds.

“It’s about a change of habit more than anything,” he says. “I suppose it was a bit of a hassle at the outset, but any sort of eco-living seems more difficult to start with.” Now a total convert, he’s always on the lookout for anything at the market he can buy without packaging.

Back in Bedfordshire, McMurdo is spreading the word about Ecover refills to his fellow boat owners. “I think we’re all getting back to nature a bit more,” he says. “And when you’re living more in touch with nature, you have to consider it more; so the products you’re using have to be even better selected.”

You can find your nearest Ecover refill station, as well as learning more about the full Ecover range, at If your local store isn’t listed then why not encourage the owner to get in touch with Ecover and bring the “refillution” to your doorstep.


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