Georgia 'refilleries' are having a resurgence, helping customers cut back on plastic

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

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with WABE and Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

Outside a Savannah apartment building last Thursday, next to a food truck serving up po’boys sat 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 LiteFoot Company, 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.”

When it’s time for new shampoo, or face wash, or dish soap, instead of throwing out the old plastic bottle and buying a new one, customers can just refill their old containers. The goal is to avoid using more 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,” Rodgers-Hubbard said. “And so our goal should be to use things that are meant to last.”

This isn’t exactly a new idea. Grocery stores used to refill used glass Coca-Cola bottles. Milk used to be delivered in glass bottles that a delivery person would collect and the dairy would refill. Some natural food stores have offered services like this for decades. 

But it’s having a resurgence as Georgia businesses turn to this old solution to help people combat climate change.

Several stores in Atlanta use a similar system, including sustainable beauty shop Fig and Flower. Owner Rachel Taylor said this does more than cut down on 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.”

fig and flower
Fig and Flower is one of several stores in Atlanta that offer refillable products. (Jasmine Robinson/WABE)

Plastic products don’t break down the way wood, paper and even metal eventually do, so plastic that ends up in the environment is there indefinitely. Horror stories abound of animals eating plastic they can’t digest, and microplastics, or infinitesimal plastic particles, have shown up everywhere from oceans and beaches to table salt and beer.

On the production end, most plastic is made from fossil fuels, meaning it starts its life in the ground as the same sort of oil that’s used for energy. Extracting it, transporting it and refining it into plastic all produce the greenhouse gasses that worsen climate change. 

The Center for International Environmental Law calls plastic refining “among the most greenhouse-gas-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector — and the fastest growing.” 

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, petrochemical and plastics companies plan to increase plastic production in the U.S by 40% over the next decade.

Most of that plastic can’t be recycled easily. The two kinds that can be recycled, the kind used for soda bottles and for milk jugs, often end up in a landfill anyway. In 2019, 5% of waste plastic in the U.S. was recycled, according to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 86% went to landfills, while the rest was burned for fuel.

By contrast, both Fig and Flower and LiteFoot use plastic in what’s called a closed-loop system. 

Products like shampoo and hand soap arrive at the stores in large plastic tubs. Once they’re empty, instead of going to a recycling center that might turn the tubs into new plastic products, or ending up in a landfill, those tubs go back to the manufacturers. They’re cleaned out and used again, just like the containers that customers bring to the stores to refill.

In the grand scheme of a global crisis, individuals and small businesses reusing containers is a tiny step. But Rodgers-Hubbard said she hopes this business model can influence bigger companies and governments, too.

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

The idea seems to be taking hold in Savannah, where after just over a year in business Rodgers-Hubbard is getting ready to open a brick-and-mortar store. In addition to the refillery, she also hopes to hold workshops on other sustainable practices, like composting or mending clothes instead of discarding them.

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

That’s part of what brought new customer Samantha Keough to a recent LiteFoot pop-up: she was looking for a local business like this to avoid ordering online.

“Bringing in products from elsewhere just has such a big carbon impact,” she said. “If I can source it from here and find it from a farmers market or find it from a local company who makes it, it makes it a lot easier on the environment.”

Like Rodgers-Hubbard, she’s trying to reduce her own carbon footprint – and she hopes taking action herself will influence others around her.

“I have hopes and dreams of having kids myself, and I want them to be able to have a healthier environment,” Keough said. “And if I can do my little impact and everyone that I know does their little impact, maybe it’ll make a bigger impact.”