Week 14: I will work out how to make refill shops part of our lives.
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
There was a Danish philosopher called Soren Kierkegaard, who said that life could only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. There has been a few recurring themes over the last three months of our little changes, and of being more planetwise, that reminded me of this advice.
These are small principles that seem obvious now, but sometimes the obvious is hard to live by and learn or re-learn as habits, when life is moving fast.
The first one refers to acquiring things. Buying stuff. You can learn a lot about what to buy from research, about what products and services seem to be more sustainable or better for the planet. However, once you have bought an item - the destiny of it is in our hands, and this is where good habits can help. Much of it comes down to: buy something, look after it well, try and fix it when it breaks, and think about how to dispose of it.
This simple principle is a good mantra to live by and a good common ground whether or not you believe in our human impact on climate change. It is just responsible use of our limited resources.
This outlook, and generally acting responsibly when using resources, leads to another recurring theme that brought Soren's quote to mind - planning. To be able to make these conscious purchase and decisions - requires planning, and this is where the pace of life becomes a factor, because planning means time. We never think about what we are going to do, because we are already doing it, and then we realise afterwards that perhaps we should have done something else.
To use another strange juxtapositioned piece of advice, from Ferris Bueller - life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Or in this case you could miss the opportunities to be more thoughtful, and more planetwise.
Little changes become permanent because we plan them into our lives, and we account for them in our week. It is something that I am not used to in my personal life, in contrast to my work life. Work life is ruled by schedules, and deadlines, and task based activities that must be achieved. Perhaps this is the reason why, when I come home, I don't want to think too far ahead about what we are going to have for tea, or the minute-by-minute activity timetable for the weekend. It makes me feel constrained, and unable to be spontaneous.
However, here is an alternative theory. It is something I am discovering through my wife Emma, and is a theory that has freed us as a family in some ways. It is the theory that you can plan to be spontaneous. Spontaneity is not chaos, it is just doing what you feel like in the moment. However, without planning, you are constantly managing chaos, and therefore unable to be spontaneous because you are not in control of the moment.
You can plan, and then use this planning, to change your plans and be spontaneous.
For example - when it comes to meal planning, this is something that I find difficult. The concept of planning what I am going to eat on a Thursday, sometimes over dinner on the previous Sunday, four days in advance, makes me feel constrained and confused. What if I fancy fish that day, or someone at work brings biscuits so I fancy just a light lunch?
However, if you plan a meal for a Thursday, then on Thursday you can spontaneously change that plan, but instead of then feeling anxious about wasting a meal, you can reschedule it in your plans for another time, or shift around future meals. It becomes a fun task in planned spontaneity. Thursday's meal can be eaten on Friday, and Fridays can either be frozen, or never purchased in the first place.
True also to planetwise principles that changes should not be difficult - our planning is not spreadsheets or smartphone applications - in fact it can be scribbled down on a piece of paper the size of a large matchbox. Having it, means that we don't forget where we are, and as long as everyone in the family understands each others' shorthands, the plan can run, or be changed, smoothly.
It is this principle of planning that I am using this week for our little change. We are taking our plastic reduction a step further, and trying to make something work that I have always wanted to, but cannot figure out how. This week, we are going to start making use of refill shops, and refilling stations, and prove they can work in our lives.
We are always thinking about packaging waste, in part because of the current noise and coverage of supermarket fruit and vegetables, and the tendency for many to be packaged in plastic trays, or enclosed in plastic bags for preservation. Work is definitely being done in supermarket chains to change this - and it is a good example of positive pressure from consumers for this change. A recognition that excess packaging can be removed in the supply chain, or alternatives such as paper, compostable materials or reusable bags can be made available is fabulous.
However, even should you choose fruit or vegetables in plastic trays, even these are mainly recyclable at the kerbside.
The inspiration that made us look further, was a friend and a neighbour who believes very strongly in making planetwise choices, and who regularly uses a new refill station that has opened up near us. We chatted, and it is always a humbling experience, as they have been using principles of sustainable living as a way of life for a long time, in a way that they believe is common sense, but for many of us would be revolutionary. They do not live this overtly, or wear it as a badge, and perhaps sometimes do not feel the credit that they deserve. But the consideration the family gives, to appreciating what they have, to making good choices, and to deeply caring for our resources, is so inspirational.
Refill shops from my previous personal experience, are tagged as 'hipster shops' or somehow unnecessary lifestyle choices, rather than a useful and productive additional option to reduce packaging waste. The problem I think is that they are considered somehow an alternative to supermarket fresh food aisles, and so really inconvenient as an extra stop on the shopping trip. However, the products on sale are cupboard fill items rather than fresh, such as pulses, nuts, or pasta.
What this chat also made me realise when figuring out if they could work in our lives, is to look beyond the current mass media reporting of supermarket fresh goods, to other places. Many of our food products are over-packaged, and because they are not used as frequently, perhaps we do not notice. Look beyond the fridge, or the everyday bread bin, and you begin to find hidden opportunities for being planetwise in the store cupboard or in the pantry. Products that are stocked at refill stations, instead of being dismissed, should be highlighted as a real opportunity and a real inconsistency. The packaging of store cupboard goods has become a blind spot for packaging waste and scrutiny.
Take pasta for example. As a family, we do eat several types of pasta, and therefore have a few brands and types that we could refer to.
Pasta is a perfect example of packaging that is inconsistent in its sourcing, and in many cases is not 'yet' recycled. The inconsistencies here are also very confusing even if you look at various brands and sources. It seems that even the growers and packers of fruit and vegetables have somehow agreed that no matter what the size, shape or source of the plastic trays or bags, that they should learn from each other and be recyclable and should state this on the packaging.
This principle does not seem to have been given the same scrutiny however in the store cupboard. One brand might be responsible and show how their packaging can be recycled, another not. And unless you have the habit to check, you can be buying lots of non-recycable packaging when alternatives are available. This also goes for rice, pulses, and basically anything that is not in a tin or an untreated cardboard carton. I tried to research why this was, but I didn't find anything that explained why the less fashionable, dark recesses of the store cupboard have not received the same scrutiny as the bright lights of the refrigerator crisper.
In terms of how to make this work, many will be reading this and say that they simply do not have time, or that the refill shops are only open whilst the general population are working their 9-5.
However, re-frame the need, from fresh produce to cupboard produce, and this opens up the possibility of planning a trip to the refill shop into your life. They are not places that need to be visited daly or perhaps even weekly, if you have enough storage space. They are places that can answer the need for less frequent items, which means we have the time to plan them, or perhaps even do them together as a family. The refill shop near us, is about 200 steps from the hairdressers, which means you can plan a Saturday morning to do both together, and make it fun.
I will not go into too much detail or the first trip, as everyone's experience and refill shop is different. The best way is also to research your local area on the internet, as we also visited three over the course of a few weeks, and although two were as expected, one was listed as a refill store, but was more of a fairtrade packaged goods store. This in itself is great, but was not fit for our project this time.
What we can do however is bust two myths that I had in my mind, and were perhaps acting as a barrier to visiting before.
The first was that you have to meticulously purchase and prepare containers. I arrived at the store, armed with flip-top jars from the backs of cupboards at home, and a backpack overflowing with Tupperware and old takeaway containers. I had mentally prepared for discussing how the store worked, and what to do with the scoops, as if I'd never visited a pick and mix before. In short, I treated the whole experience as if I had just landed on Earth from the Moon, and was visiting the shops for the very first time.
This was totally unnecessary. Our local store is not only well stocked and well-organised, but it also has a useful box of old containers at the entrance, that can be used by customers to refill and then bring back next time should they not have brought containers of their own. Strong paper bags were available, that you could then either use at home, or use to transport your shopping to the more permanent glass and plastic containers from your own cupboards.
The second myth, is one that I remember from my childhood, that the inside of the store would be like one of the 'weigh stores' that focused on the value of unboxed goods rather than the planetwise benefits. I remember huge vats of cornflakes that I perceived might have been there for months, or vast buckets of peanuts, that you opened from the top and that you often witnessed small hands delving into to grab huge handfuls simply for the joy of feeling it in your grasp - only to put it back again for a future unwitting customers to take home and consume, sweaty palm debris and all.
The store in our local area, is quite the opposite. Well laid out, aesthetically pleasing and easy to shop, with neat rows of product in well arranged racks. It made it a joy to an anxious first-time customer. If you also need validation of the quality - I discovered also that the pasta and many of the products, are the same as those destined for restaurants, which makes sense given they are sourced unbranded. The owner seemed to understand and was tuned in to how strange and uncomfortable an experience this was for me, feeling slightly embarrassed and self-conscious. We have become so used to helping ourselves at supermarkets, that having more personal service is at first disconcerting, but soon becomes a pleasure and a discovery all of my own.
In addition to the out-of-the-box products (our local store is also aptly called Out of the Box in Richmond, North Yorkshire), there is also a range of well sourced other products of all kinds, from block soaps and shampoos, hand soaps, to household products - which made the trip even more of a bonus as we can also stock up on a few further items that we didn't expect.
I am confident this will become a permanent change, and a trip we can make semi-regularly for cupboard products. I was able to stock up on a few items, but also was able to find new and interesting other products to try alongside the staples that we initially planned to buy, for next time.
There is an element of preparation in the visit, but this is no more than I remember from my parent's own shopping trips, and it also forced us to think about changing our routine.
From a personal perspective, this week also feels like it has broken a cycle in our lives. Supermarkets will still have a place, although we do use grocers, butchers and the market more because we are lucky to have choice and great quality in this respect in our area. But for the majority of non-fresh items, the supermarket is still the main destination. For us, it is another example of supermarkets doing great job in anticipating what we need, and we have become spoiled by the convenience they afford us.
When under time pressure, we use supermarkets as a solution to every single product that we need to live our weekly lives - and in turn I can see how they must feel under constant pressure from us as consumers that ranges should be bigger, and that ever increasing choice is a benchmark of success.
However, despite this enormous choice, we ironically still buy the same thing again and again and have removed the joy of this choice from their offering. Online, we select from our favourites, and in many ways this makes our thinking narrower, not larger. In store, we are sometimes literally chucking stuff in the trolley, so we can get around all the aisles and departments in the time we have.
Markets used to sell different items on different stalls, but supermarkets by their very title suggest that you can get everything you desire under one roof, from strawberries to cheese to kitchen foil to toilet bleach. Within each range, we then all have our favourite brand, and the supermarket is expected to have them all, because it is super. If our favourite brand of orange juice or crackers is not available, we huff and puff and leave it out of the basket, or vouch to shop elsewhere next time.
But even this is frustrating, because at the same time we don't believe we have the time to waste to visit elsewhere, despite there being eight or nine alternatives available right in front of our noses. We believe that we have that one window to shop, and no time to do it elsewhere. We shop on breadth of product, and try to cram everything into that one trip.
What we learned this week, is that you can plan time in semi-regularly for a different way of shopping, you can break the cycle and that refill shops can fit into our lives with this extra planning. We can be planetwise, but at the same time we have probably taken some pressure off our shopping. By separating out our shopping into smaller, better planned trips, we have tried new things, eaten more variety, and felt more connected with the food we have purchased and consumed.
We are all connected, and stores such as Out of the Box will rely on footfall, which means they rely on families and individuals planning to visit, as many refill shops will be in town centres, rather than on the edge of town. Planned trips are needed alongside the passing or impulse trade. Word of mouth is needed to help break down the barriers of what might be a new experience to some as it was to us.
The common ground might be to try being planned, because by doing this we have made this change but also cut down the time that we spend doing emergency and expensive runs to the convenience stores, and the time that Leo needs to spend in a traditional supermarket even in the busy weeks. Less time for him being consistently told 'no' and that he cannot have every colourful packet off the shelf, and cannot open the ones that we agreed to put in the trolley already.
I can't wait for him to see what they have on offer, and in speaking with the store owner I can see him having fun sniffing the spices, pulling the handles to fill up our containers, and weighing everything on the scales at the end. Food is not a game, but an opportunity to get up close and personal with ingredients, to see and smell them, to talk about where they came from, just makes that extra connection and appreciation of how lucky we are.
And if I need to tempt him back next time, they also do pick and mix, and it looks incredible.