New wave of refill shops offer something different
Ella Walker hits the high street to find an increasingly popular way to purchase food
One of my abiding memories of childhood is being fed Sesame Snaps by my mum in an effort to stop me from screaming down the local health food shop.
Musty, boring, with everything from the sacks of grains to the carpet, either a miserable beige or brown, I'd have much rather been flicking through the Argos book of dreams across the high street.
A changing landscape
The new wave of 'refill' shops beginning to pop up across the UK though owe quite a bit to the legacy of the independent health food shops that could once be found in almost every town.
While Holland & Barrett has gamely filled the gap, a new breed is on the rise, combining the sale of loose, unprocessed ingredients with a sleeker aesthetic. Just this autumn, Refill Quarter opened on the Belmont Road in Belfast, promising a cost effective way to shop.
Refill shops have shrugged off the 'hippy' vibe of their predecessors, and instead have co-opted a look that's much more Instagram-friendly. Think tasteful wooden shelving, shapely metal scoops and plastic-free credentials that make you feel wholly virtuous and firmly in David Attenborough's good books.
A few drawbacks
There are a few issues, of course, cost being a major one - prices do not, overall, tend to compete with the major supermarkets. And if you haven't got enough plastic tubs or glass jars to carry your wares home in, you could have to shell out for those too.
Then there's the opening times: if you work full-time, getting to an independently-run, 9am-5pm refill store is going to be tricky. Also, you can't get absolutely everything you need - most outlets of this type stick with dry goods (rice, pasta, nuts) and store cupboard essentials (oil, spices, soap). So don't expect to be able to nab your veg for dinner too.
And how much plastic and waste is involved in the delivery of goods to the store, before they're displayed for customers? It's hard to know.
The experience itself
However, potential problems aside, it's definitely a pretty enjoyable way to do your food shop. I cobble together an empty (washed) gherkin jar and some Tupperware tubs and visit my local zero waste store, Gather (wearegather.uk), in Peckham, London.
It's filled with huge glass jars stuffed with shards of dry mango and chocolate covered cashews, while the walls are lined with dispensers containing all your basics, including flour, couscous, rice, almonds, raisins etc, but also things like mincemeat and yoghurt coated nibbles.
I write down the weights of my containers - using a set of scales and markers on the way in (a machine 'magically' works out the final weights once they're filled at the till) - and set about helping myself.
It feels faintly like stealing, but I get into it, filling my jar with strawberry and banana granola, a tub with twisty casarecce pasta and another with walnut halves (for brownies, of course).
Sure, there's a mild amount of terror when you go to pay - after all, everything is labelled by price per kg, but you're still at the mercy of the scales for the final total. It definitely makes you focus and only dispense what you actually think you'll need, which presumably over time should lead to less waste.
The only really upsetting moment is discovering a peanut butter-making machine (very exciting) and realising I've run out of jars and rucksack space. Disaster.
Perhaps the most enchanting thing though is the community aspect and the linked-up feeling of doing good.
Many eco-minded refill shops work in tandem with other waste reduction schemes and sustainability enterprises, like bamboo toothbrush manufacturers, TerraCycle bins (for disposing of hard to recycle items, like beauty product packaging) or SoleShare, which delivers sustainable fish from fisherman to consumer.
While it won't replace my supermarket shop just yet, it will definitely supplement it. And next time, there will be peanut butter.