The growing awareness of the plastic problem and the issue of waste and pollution more widely has seen a slowly growing number of plastic free or zero waste shops opening across the UK.

So what is it like to start and run a plastic free shop, what are the challenges and can we expect to see many more in the near future?

We caught up with Maya, who launched her eponymous Maya’s Refillables zero waste business earlier this year in Reading and Wokingham…

What made you open a zero waste shop and what is your background?
“I have spent the past 15 years in the software industry, beginning as an engineer and becoming a manager but last year I realised that I needed to do something closer to my core values.

The work I did as a volunteer at Archelon in Greece, as part of their amazing sea turtle conservation programme definitely shook and woke up the eco warrior in me!

Tell us about your zero waste business?

“Maya’s Refillables Ltd is an independent company whose aim is to help households and companies to reduce their consumption and dependence on plastic. You can find a whole range of daily alternatives for your kitchen, bathroom or other needs and there is obviously the refill station that allows customers to refill 15 products when their bottles are empty, instead of throwing them away.”

What are the barriers/challenges when setting up a zero waste shop?
“The main challenge is to explain that yes it actually does matter that we all do our part. Waiting for laws to ban certain products or expecting other more polluting countries to reduce their emissions before vaguely starting your journey doesn’t feel like the right reaction to the climate change issue we’re facing.

If we all stop consuming certain types of products then industries worldwide will change. This is purely because in this globalised market, companies adapt to demand. If we say no more plastic and plastic product sales plummet, then companies will change their strategy. Guaranteed. But we, as consumers, need to do it together.”

What changes have you noticed in the last year?
“There is definitely more information about how critical the situation is and how we need to act now. As much as I’d like the world to heal and be able to help everyone move away from plastic, it’s a long journey as there is one thing we, human beings are bad at is changing our cosy habits.

I sometimes feel that the media is making us feel guilty but that it doesn’t point out enough alternatives as to the changes we can all make. It focuses too much on the problems, not how to address them.”

What have you learned?
“A lot! I am learning every day about what being a startup/self-made woman means and you simply never stop! From listening to customers, to product research, to selecting suppliers and the whole chain of orders, stocking, inventories, accountancy, marketing, media, stalls and events, but also helping to support local projects, committees and events… I love this challenge and I feel very much alive, and the support I get from customers is so worth it!”

What are your top 5 selling items?
“In terms of refillables, laundry liquids, hand soaps, surface cleaner and the famous spiced ginger washing up liquid!

For other products, loofah sponges, shampoo bars, loose soaps, toothpaste tablets and sandwich/freezer bags made of reprocessed corn material!”

What are your favourites?
“I personally love the fig hand soap and the lavender & rosemary surface cleaner (fantastic on limescale!) but also can’t recommend the Mooncups enough! To all the ladies out there, they truly change your life and save you money every month!

What’s new/coming soon?
“Quite a few things! I have ten new alternatives this week. Christmas hampers have appeared on my stall too. And on 18 November, I am receiving refills for shampoo, shower gel and hair conditioner!”

What next for Maya’s Refillables?
“I am launching a B2B delivery service. Most companies typically use hand soap, washing up liquid, toilet cleaner and surface cleaner. So if you work at or know a company that is willing to use more eco-friendly products, made in the UK, delivered with zero emissions (as I deliver with my electric van) and want to make sure the plastic drums are not wasted, then contact me for a quote. If you mention TPFH19 before 31 December 2019, you’ll get an additional £5 discount on your first order too!”

Why isn’t zero waste anywhere near becoming mainstream? Will it?
“In my humble opinion, it will ! I’ve lived in several countries where 20 years ago, the organic or vegetarian movement and shops were in a minority and something that most people considered to be a strange lifestyle.

To me, the best example that tells me it will become mainstream is a shop in my small home town in France, about the size of Winnersh in population. In 2012, it was a tiny unit, a tiny organic grocery store. When I last visited my family earlier this year, I discovered that after 7 years of defending values and evolving into a social enterprise, the tiny unit is now the size of a small supermarket! It’s all about mentalities and habits evolving and getting the message out there.

Responsible consumer choices do affect how economic models evolve and help small business to grow and thrive and to offer the type of products that you want and deserve.”

Are big brands and governments doing enough?
“Tough one! From where we stand it is difficult to understand all that is happening in the background and why things seem to evolve so slowly. Nevertheless, from where I stand, I do see changes with brands and suppliers. It has happened with two products where a tiny bit of plastic was used in packaging, serving no purpose. Fellow zero plastic shop owners and I decided to email the supplier and ask why this plastic was needed and if there was anything they could do and would do about it, or we would have to stop getting our products from them. A couple of month later, those bits disappeared!”

What concerns you most and why?
“Mis-information. Two examples: the recycling symbol on products and packaging means it ‘can be recycled with the adequate technology’ but doesn’t mean it WILL be in the area that you live in if the Borough doesn’t have the technology or facilities!

Secondly, greenwashing and fake-eco profit. Too often, a magnificent effort is put in place by brands to appear to be green, and for that reason they often set the price for those supposedly eco-products higher despite a more responsible production process often being less expensive.

True eco brands have better ethics than that. Having fair and affordable prices to help as many people as possible to move away from plastic is one Maya’s Refillables’s top commitments.”

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