Ian Thursfield takes a handful of jars from a customer as we chat on a bustling afternoon at Leeds’s Kirkgate Market. He notes the weight of each, before handing them back to his patron, who makes her way around his ‘zero waste’ store.
Shoppers at The JarTree, which opened in September 2018, come armed with containers, filling them from the store’s selection of wares - dried goods, cupboard essentials, toiletries and household cleaning products, most free of any packaging and all clear from plastic.
“We’re in a central location that everybody knew already and we have thousands of ready-made customers,” Ian tells me, explaining why he and business partner Aimee Charlotte opted for the market. The shop grew out of their desire to change their own shopping habits. There was no refill store in Leeds centre for them to use, so they set up their own.
“We’re going back to more what things were like in the 1980s,” Ian says, a nod to the health food stores of the era, lined with whole food products in bulk bags and bins. “But with improvements,” he adds. By that, he means developments in food safety, quality and hygiene regulations. “We’ve also basked in the whole re-use aspect,” he says. “Shops back then were to save people money rather than to save the environment and reduce packaging. They’re the main differences - the ethos and health and safety.”
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but Ian’s shop is one of a wave of refill stores that have opened across the UK in the past two years, a trend dubbed by some to be the rumblings of a ‘zero-waste revolution’. They are leading the way in the fight against plastic and excess packaging, designed, with environmental impact in mind, to give shoppers a choice to change their consumer habits.
“The shop is getting a lot of positive conversation going on about products, what people can change and what they can do,” says father-of-two Ian, who lives in Armley. He says customers in Leeds have “got behind the idea” and his biggest clientele are NHS workers, stay-at-home parents and students.
“We call it the David Attenborough effect. He has released a lot of shows about this (the impact of plastics on the environment). We as a nation seemed to struggle with the concept of beyond our country and these shows suddenly showed us seas we never see with streams of plastic.
“We were just in our little bubble and it perhaps didn’t occur to us that this was happening. When these shows came out, suddenly something switched and people were like, right we need to start doing something about it.”
Refill stores are not without their downsides, not least that most outlets typically stick to dry goods and store cupboard essentials, meaning customers still turn elsewhere for fresh produce.
But Ian says they are showing “big supermarkets and players in food and retail that this kind of model works” - and he hopes that will change their thinking on how they sell products to customers. “They’ve got the money, they’ve got the means, they’ve got the staff, they’ve got the knowledge, they have it all, they just need to implement it,” he says. “They need to see it work before they invest their money in it and that’s basically what we’re doing, is showing that it can be a success.”
Sara Hawthorn, of Bramley, agrees that supermarkets could do more. “They are convenient and aren’t going to stop being convenient,” she says. “It would be good to see more coming from them so it’s not all relying on zero waste shops if you don’t want to buy things in packaging.”
Sara has made changes to her shopping habits this year, swapping the supermarket for refill stores as much as possible, with Seagulls Reuse on Kirkstall Road her shop of choice. “At times it has been challenging, because if we run out of something at 6pm, we will have to go by convenience to a local supermarket,” she says, acknowledging their longer opening hours. “It’s a mindset shift and we have to think and plan but we are getting into the flow and it’s becoming more routine.”
Sara says having alternative options for shopping is “increasingly important as we become aware of our personal impact on the world around us”. Samantha Newton agrees - and it was along those lines that she opened refill store ecoTopia with her sister Michelle Arthur last October.
“It’s to give people choice,” she says. “If you want to go plastic free, more sustainable, more eco-friendly, generally supermarkets don’t have that option. Some do...In the meantime, all these small independent businesses are giving ourselves and customers in our area the option to go plastic free and to be more sustainable in how they shop and how they live.”
The sisters set up the shop, on Leeds’s Central Arcade, with growing concerns about the impact of plastics, the health of the planet and the future for their children. As well as selling its wares, it offers schemes for difficult-to-recycle materials including crisp packets and oral care items and is also a drop-off point for ecobricks - plastics packed into bottles to create building blocks.
“It’s not for the next generation or the generation after to worry about,” Samantha says. “It’s for us to do now because otherwise they might be left with a mess that they can’t clean up because we’ve left it too late. That’s a scary thought.” As well as offering minimal packaging and no plastic, Samantha says refill stores have another benefit - shoppers can buy exactly the amount they need, helping to limit food waste.
“If you want to try something and you’re not too sure, you don’t have to get an entire bag, you can just grab a scoop and see how it goes. You can get smaller amounts or you can do the opposite and get bigger amounts if you’re using a lot of one thing all the time, instead of buying packets and packets and packets. You can buy in bulk using your own tubs with no packaging involved.”
For Charlotte Hawkins, who has run Waste Not in Burley-in-Wharfedale since its beginnings as a pop-up shop in March 2018, there’s a further benefit too. “I suppose it does take longer because you have to fill your own containers,” she admits. “But a lot of customers say it is a nicer shopping experience because it’s personal.”
“The response has been really positive,” she says. “We have lots of people coming and shopping regularly, lots of people making changes and also schools and nurseries are now trying to reduce their plastics so it’s had a massive impact in our community...These shops get people thinking and encourage them to make small changes, which all adds up.”
Ian agrees. There’s “not a chance” it is currently possible to live a completely zero-waste lifestyle, he claims. “But it doesn’t need one person doing it perfectly, it needs millions of people doing it imperfectly. Everybody makes a difference when they make a change - and that’s what it’s all about.”