Green Tau issue 34 

Fancy a Refill?

Buying milk in glass bottles that are returned empty and refilled has a long

tradition in the UK. The glass bottles can be used 50 or more times although the average reuse may be closer to 20. The system is facilitated by the door to door delivery of milk and simultaneous collection of the empties, which are then returned to the dairy where they will be cleaned and refilled. 

This refill system avoids the production of waste or hard to recycle materials. It is more efficient than putting milk into plastic containers which are, once empty, collected by a waste collection service, sent to various recycling facilities before being remade – ideally – into a new plastic milk carton. Currently plastic milk cartons are made of 40% recycled plastic and 60% virgin plastic. 

In the past beer and fizzy drinks were sold in bottles with a deposit that was repaid when the bottle was returned. These bottles were returned to the manufacturer and refilled. This practice continues today in countries such as Germany. (Having bought a bottle of beer on a German train, I then found in the corridor a specially designed cupboard into which the empties slotted for their safe return). Whilst we are still waiting for this approach to be reintroduced in Britain, there is a growing number of local outlets where you can refill your bottles with beers, wine and milk etc.

Milk delivery services are branching out and supplying not just dairy milk in refillable bottles but also plant based milks, and fruit juices. Milk and More has partnered with ‘Fill’ to supply refillable bottles of cleaning products: empty bottles are simply returned for reuse along with ones empty milk bottles. Here in Sheen the Micro Beer shop has a changing selection of beers on tap each week – buy one of their beer bottles or take your own sealable 1 litre bottle. Apple and Bees offers red and white refills from Borough Wines. The Source Bulk store in Richmond has oat milk on tap and Gilcombe Farm brings a churn of its raw milk to the Barnes Farmers’ Market – again buy one of their bottles or bring your own.

Can other food stuffs be sold in reusable containers? Yes. 

Tesco has teamed up with Loop. In selected stores customers can buy a range of products sold in reusable containers, paying a deposit which is refunded when the empty container is returned for reuse. The Loop range includes items such as peanut butter and jam, pasta and rice, porridge oats and muesli, tea bags and dishwasher tablets, ketchup and face cream. Abel and Cole offer a similar scheme for their customers, supplying lentils, pasta, rice, oats, dates, quinoa, raisins and chocolate buttons, in returnable reusable containers. 

There are a growing net of refill/ bulk stores which stock terms in bulk allowing customers to decant and buy as much as they want. Typically the store either provides paper bags for the produce or invites consumers to bring their own bags or containers. The latter provides the more desirable zero waste outcome. Various supermarkets (Aldi, Asda, The Central England Cooperative, M&S, Morrisons and Waitrose) are also experimenting with the refill concept – either along the lines of bulk stores with items dispensed into paper bags etc, or wit products sold in returnable containers. 

Local for East Sheen, Culver and Nelson has a refill section for various dry goods. The Source Bulk store in Richmond sells both dry goods,  liquid commodities such as oil, vinegar, maple syrup, and tamari sauce, as well honey and nut butters etc dispensed into reusable jars. Both The Source and Apple and Bees sell liquid cleaning products – washing up liquid, laundry detergent, hair shampoo, liquid soap, toilet cleaner – as refills.

Beyond food there are other items that can be bought as refills such as ink for fountain pens and ink for printers (eg Epson). 

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

2 thoughts on “Green Tau issue 34 ”

  1. Hi Judith, I watched the Panorama programme about milk production the other night and I had wondered about Cow/calf separation. I was shocked to see what they go through for cheap milk. I am guilty of obtaining cheap milk – part of my simplicity but not at that cost. I may try oat milk. I understand Soya puts stress on the land is this right? I ask you because you are so knowledgeable.


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