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A contemporary cross between the traditional milk round and the fish and grocery delivery vans of the 50s and 60s, a growing fleet of anthropomorphically named vans and milk floats are being transformed into mobile zero-waste shops, taking the mission to the next level.
“The idea”, says Emma Mattacola of Northamptonshire’s The Refill Van (or ‘Ralph’), “is that instead of lots of people driving to one zero waste shop, one shop can have a planned route and deliver to people who live in the same area at the same time. This means that we are not burning needless fossil fuels and can serve communities who have limited access to refill shops.”
The Refill Van, FAIR-WELL, Refills on the Road, Goodfillas, Incredible Bulk, Top-Up Truck, Rhi-fill, The Little Green Van… the convoy is growing, and with start-up costs ranging from as little as £100 up to £30k, it makes business as much as environmental sense. “The initial costs for setting up have been relatively low.” says Goodfillas’ founder, Annie Noble. “Our theory was: worst case we won’t have to buy washing-up liquid for a few years.”
Powered by social media, local apps, that critical word of mouth and evangelical passion, most operate through a flexible combination of prescribed routes, market pop-ups and online bookings, where communities handily take on the marketing by corralling sufficient interest to book a visit. Some refill their customers’ containers left on doorsteps, which - as we pile into a second lockdown - has obvious advantages.
It would be easy to see Covid as the catalyst. The pandemic has certainly accelerated home delivery demand, prioritised sustainability, grown a sense of community and nurtured a nostalgic yen for simpler times. Take out crippling overheads, add a business model capable of adapting to lockdown restrictions, of physically hunting out its customer base and tailoring its offer accordingly, and it is, without doubt, a timely pivot.
Yet, two of the first such mobile enterprises - North London’s FAIR-WELL and Cornwall’s Incredible Bulk - began trading over two years ago, determined to reduce DEFRA’s estimated 26m tonnes of waste created by British households annually. We were clearly on course for this next evolutionary leap, but Covid has undoubtedly created a receptive market.
And it works. FAIR-WELL claim to have diverted an impressive 25,775 items of single-use packaging in just one year. Their commitment is total, enforcing container reuse by not even supplying paper bags, and relying on battery power from ‘Charlie’ - their immaculately restored, 1970s milk float - to deliver a wide, sustainably sourced range of organic pulses, rices, pastas, dried fruits, cereals, nuts, eco-cleaning and beauty products.
Down in Cornwall, Jack Pound, of the Incredible Bulk husband and wife team, is on the road four days a week, at peak, visiting eight to ten locations with an equally exhaustive, ethically curated offer. “We carry as many products as a normal zero waste shop would - about 150 lines in total - because offering customers choice is a key part of attracting them to the van,” he says. “The key for us is to try and get them to develop a habit.”
Consumers are indeed looking for help, but convenience will always play a part in changing behaviours, which has resulted in an ingeniously symbiotic pairing in East London.
Megan Adams opened her zero waste shop Re:Store at Hackney Downs Studios at the beginning of 2019. “Customers have been enquiring since we opened whether we would be able to bring Re:Store products to their doorstep.” she says. “I’d actually started looking into milk floats when Ella reached out to me.”
Ella Shone can now be mainly found behind the wheel of her converted electric float - the ‘Top Up Truck’ – which they describe as their “Tesco Express”. Alongside the practical positives of sharing stock, the model allows them to literally take the refill message into the community, with each retail side advertising the other and directing two-way traffic between a bigger range and doorstep convenience. The truck also offers an eco-warrior ‘entry-point’, compared to the seasoned Re:Store shopper. “The Top Up Truck bookings are more often people who are engaging with the movement for the first time,” says Shone, who is already seeing encouraging signs for adding a second float.
In Oxfordshire too, Goodfillas’ is discovering a business model with roll-out potential. They deliver weekly home, health and beauty product refills to doorsteps, mostly by bicycle or on foot, and last month launched a sister round in North London, run by a notably London-based friend.
“We want to keep our delivery services local as that’s really important to us: having direct impact in our communities,” says Annie Noble. “But there may be the opportunity to open a Goodfillas refill delivery service in other areas, if someone who lived in the community was interested in doing it.”
Overwhelmingly community focused, these enterprises are also bringing the social back into shopping. “It is such a rewarding project, as we clearly see the change in our customers’ habits,” say FAIR-WELL founders Claire Marchais and Jerilee Quintana. “Because we are doing a very positive project, our customers are super supportive, generous and friendly. This is just one of the greatest human adventures of both our lives.”
For Rosie Blackburn, who has been operating The Little Green Van around areas of Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire since March 2020, the rewards are long term: “In ten years’ time I want to see shops and supermarkets, including on line, offering zero waste options, reusable and home compostable packaging as standard. ‘Zero Waste’ shops won’t be needed anymore because zero waste will have become the norm.”
“Yes,” she adds, ”I’ll need to find a new job, but that’s fine!”
Image: Claire Marchais, Jerilee Quintana of FAIR-WELL