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Fill 'er up: New local businesses offer bulk products to push plastics aside
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Fill 'er up: New local businesses offer bulk products to push plastics aside

As Virginia’s state government, community colleges and the University of Virginia shrink away from plastic products, two local retail outlets are focusing on helping area residents follow the same path.

Dogwood Refillery held a weekend grand opening for its store on Zan Road at Seminole Square Shopping Center, while Staunton-based Refill Renew is only weeks away from opening its storefront on Allied Street, near C’ville Coffee.

Both stores are following retail models made popular in Europe and Washington state and Oregon, in which customers bring their own containers to fill with soap, cleansers, cleaners or other products.

“I was always Earth friendly and when I moved to Charlottesville six years ago, everyone I knew was environmentally concerned. It seemed like that’s just what Virginia did,” said Alex Theriault, owner and proprietor of Dogwood Refillery.

“... I was working at Apex Clean Energy, so I was around a lot of like-minded people. I wanted to make changes and I would try and find alternatives. I was always looking for a solution, but when it came to plastic, I couldn’t just say, ‘do this.’ Plastic is everywhere,” she said Sunday.

The idea of refilling came up in her research and stuck in her mind. At first, she liked the idea. Then she wished there was a refillery in town. Then she decided to open one.

“I started to do some research and my fiancé and I started talking about it. I said I thought I wanted to do this, and he said he was in,” Theriault said. “So far, this is day two of the grand opening and it’s exciting that people who have heard about it are coming in. They’re saying thank you for doing this, and I’m saying thank you for coming in here.”

Dogwood Refillery offers refills and other low-waste products to replace plastics. Theriault said her priorities are that ingredients first be non-toxic to people, pets and the environment, followed by high quality and effectiveness.

She seeks local, women- and minority-owned suppliers, such as The Freckled Farm Soap Co. and withSimplicity cosmetics and skin care.

Theriault is not alone in her concern. The single-use plastic problem has garnered international attention. In March, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered state agencies, including universities, to go 100% non-medical-use plastic-free by the end of 2025.

From shopping bags to utensils, all use-once-and-throw-away plastic items are being cut back or cut out completely at UVa, including plastic water bottles and plastic trash bag liners.

Concessions and national-brand items with plastic containers will be phased out by December 2022.

It isn’t just governments and small businesses that are looking to cut down on plastics. International corporation Unilever — which owns such brands as Breyers, Lipton, Axe, Ben and Jerry’s and Noxzema — is interested in the refilling concept.

Unilever officials are looking at different methods of refilling, from bulk containers at grocery stores to deposit-return setups. While eyeing ways to decrease packaging, officials also noted that the growing consumer concern is a business opportunity.

“This is a really exciting area and one where we’re aiming to take a leading role,” said Richard Slater, Unilever’s chief research and development officer, in a statement. “We’re trailing various approaches to tackle the issue, as there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re determined to make a real difference on the plastics challenge, and so we’ll continue to experiment and to test, learn and refine.”

For Staunton’s Refill Renew, the concept has already has proven itself. After almost three years in business, the shop is expanding into Charlottesville, where it already has loyal customers. The store is expected to open the first week of September.

“About three years ago, Staunton eliminated their plastic recycling program and it was the impetus for us to get into this game,” said Mandy Drumheller, of Refill Renew. “We knew there had to be a better way to get products into your home without having to throw plastic away.”

The store has a combination of specialty bulk products and brand-name products.

“It’s been a very successful run here in Staunton, which is the whole reason we wanted to move into other places. If it works in downtown Staunton, it will work in bigger cities,” Drumheller said. “Charlottesville is close enough that I can run two stores at the same time. We also have loyal customers who for years have come over the mountain to shop with us and fill their bottles. It only makes sense to open a store that’s close to where they are.”

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