Refill is the New Recycle

“Recycling is not enough; Refill is the New Recycle.” I could sense Jana’s enthusiasm, but also her urgency. Jana Flores owns Fill Happy, a refill shop in Williamsburg, VA. I’d introduced myself after reading her story on a local news site. 


I felt I could relate to her story. Safe and sustainable products can be difficult to find. And even these can leave us feeling buried in plastic packaging. For Jana and her family, founding Fill Happy was an opportunity to turn these experiences into a community-based solution to a truly global problem.

The old Recycle


I can’t remember when I first learned to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” By grade school, it was already so ingrained that saying one word meant that you had to say the other two. It may be one of the most influential marketing slogans ever created--even though no one knows exactly who invented it. 


Its roots are in the very first Earth Day. For over 30 years, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” has been a key part of our community response to environmental issues. It’s nothing less than how we were taught to save the planet. So, what happened? Do we actually need a New Recycle?

Our plastic fork problem


Yes, we do. In 2017, China sent shockwaves through recycling and waste management industries worldwide when they stopped importing “foreign garbage” including waste plastics--plastics like clamshell containers and plastic forks. 


As the world’s largest disposable consumer economy, the US now has to reconcile with how it disposed of its waste--and in particular--its plastic. Literal tons of items that consumers assumed were being recycled actually ended their lives in landfills in China and other developing countries. 


Several countries soon followed China’s lead and began to limit the amount of waste plastic they imported. There was suddenly much more waste plastic on the US plastic market. As the value of that plastic decreased, many recycling facilities reduced their capacity or shut down entirely.

The refill economy

It’s obvious that we now need a “New Recycle. This is where refill shops like Fill Happy come in. Theirs is a different approach to the plastics problem. Why take a perfectly usable plastic container out of circulation to turn it into something else when you can simply fill it up again?  


The refill concept certainly is not new. The once-iconic milkman delivered his product in reusable glass bottles, which he took with him and returned, filled, on his next visit. Today, refill shops are looking for ways to make it easier for us to embrace the refill economy. Some are following a similar model. Fill Happy offers local pickup and delivery. Purchase any of their natural sustainable products, and they will pick up your clean empty reusable containers and return them to you filled. 

The New Recycle


Globally, pressure is mounting to find a solution to the plastics problem and it’s no wonder people like Jana share a sense of urgency. Yet, there is optimism in the refill movement. Refill shops like Fill Happy are tangible ways a local community can be a part of a global solution. It’s an opportunity many wouldn’t otherwise have, especially in communities that are small or underserved.


Shops like Fill Happy are doing more than just providing safe natural products and keeping plastic out of the landfill. They are educating people, and they are creating local communities of concern. As the trend continues to grow, businesses like Jana’s are stepping into new roles as leaders in the refill economy. Welcome to the New Recycle.    


Author bio: Matt Murphy lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with his wife and daughter. He is a freelance proofreader, editor, and technical writer with nearly 10 years in federal government HR. He writes great user guides. He also writes about tea, technology, environmental issues, and his experiences as a stay-at-home dad. Connect with him on LinkedIn.