business circular economy

Refills that benefit the poorest first

I don’t know if you have a refill shop near you. We don’t have one in Luton. The nearest one is a bus ride away in Hitchin and it’s lovely – nicely fitted out, lots of choice, friendly staff. I’ve only been there once though, because it was eye-wateringly expensive. Even if it was on my doorstep, there’s just no way I could afford to shop there.

That’s partly the choice of products. These were organic dried beans, and wild rice in exotic colours. Not your basics, although even the more everyday items were three or four times the price of other shops.

That’s a recurring theme in the refill shops I’ve seen in other towns. They are more expensive than normal goods. It costs more to get a refill than to just buy a new product and throw away another round of packaging. Like organic food, you could easily assume that plastic-free shopping is a middle class luxury. This an obstacle to wider change. We need sustainable choices to be for everyone, not just for those that can afford it.

That’s entirely possible, as Algramo have proved in Chile. Their vending machines and smart packaging make it easy and quick to get packaging-free refills, but they’ve also made it cheaper. Customers getting a refill don’t need to pay for packaging, so there’s a saving involved that incentivises people to do it. Algramo prices are regularly 30% lower for refills.

I’ve written about Algramo before, but I want to mention them again for two reasons. Firstly, in the couple of years since I wrote about them they’ve done a bunch of deals with bigger corporations, including Nestle and Unilever. Looking at how the business has developed and grown beyond Chile, it’s easier to see where it would fit into the UK retail market. And as if to prove the point, in October they launched a partnership with Lidl. Three Lidl stores are trialling detergent refill machines right now. Like in Chile, refill customers make a saving, and the refill option is the cheapest detergent in the store. This is plastic-free shopping that benefits those on low incomes.

Secondly, I wanted to mention Algramo because they’re a case study in the Story of Stuff series on plastic. So if you want to see for yourself how their system works, have a look at the short video below:


  1. It’s good to hear about other experiences, but I just want to say that my local refill shop – Ernie’s in Anglia Square, Norwich – is very affordable. Their prices are fairly comparable with supermarkets, particularly for the basics such as cleaning products, cereals etc. Where there prices are higher, it is because they are premium products and not because they have increased prices because they see refill as a gimmick market to tap into. I’ll be going there later to get some rapeseed oil, citric acid, vegetable bouillon and laundry detergent, amongst other things.

    1. Good to hear that more affordable options are out there. I’ve yet to find one myself, but I expect more of them are on their way. I suspect part of the problem is that refill shops are all small independents, and can’t offer the economies of scale that larger operators can. Thanks for mentioning some shops doing it well though!

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