Georgia Savannah Atlanta plastics recycling refill reuse containers

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Outside a Savannah apartment building on a recent Thursday, next to a food truck serving po’boys sat a small covered truck emblazoned with leafy greens. Inside are wooden shelves of reusable cleaning supplies and a wall of large pump bottles.

It’s the LiteFoot Company, which owner Katie Rodgers-Hubbard calls a “filler.”

“We just help you out of the plastic,” she said. “We weigh the containers before and after, and then everything is just by the ounce, so you can get a little, you can get a lot.”

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When it’s time to buy a new shampoo, facial cleanser or dish soap, instead of throwing away the old plastic bottle and buying a new one, customers can simply refill their old containers. The goal: to avoid using more fossil fuels such as gas and oil which aggravate climate change.

“There are so many fossil fuels that go into the production and then also into plastic recycling,” Rodgers-Hubbard said. “And so our goal should be to use things that are meant to last.”

Plastics production increases

It’s not really a new idea. Grocery stores used to refill used glass Coke bottles. Previously, the milk was delivered in glass bottles that a delivery person picked up and the dairy filled. Some health food stores have been offering services like this for decades.

But it’s experiencing a resurgence as Georgian businesses turn to this ancient solution to help people fight climate change.

Several Atlanta stores use a similar system, including sustainable beauty store Fig and Flower. Owner Rachel Taylor said it more than reduces carbon usage.

“We have all this plastic going into the ocean and then you have microplastics,” she said. “So by just keeping your bottle and reusing it over and over again, you’re just not putting as much plastic in there.”

Plastic products don’t break down like wood, paper and even metal do, so plastic that ends up in the environment stays there indefinitely. Horror stories abound of animals eating plastic they can’t digest, and microplastics, or infinitesimal plastic particles, have appeared everywhere, from oceans and beaches to table salt and beer.

On the production side, most plastic is made from fossil fuels, which means it starts life in the ground like the same type of petroleum used for energy. Its extraction, transport and refining into plastics all produce greenhouse gases that make climate change worse.

The Center for International Environmental Law calls plastic refining “among the most greenhouse gas intensive industries in manufacturing – and the fastest growing.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, petrochemical and plastics companies plan to increase plastic production in the United States by 40% over the next decade.

Most of this plastic cannot be easily recycled. The two types that can be recycled, the type of plastic used for soda bottles and for milk jugs, often end up in a landfill anyway. In 2019, only 5% of plastic waste in the United States was recycled, according to the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The majority, 86%, went to landfills, while the rest was burned for fuel.

Closed loop system

In contrast, Fig and Flower and LiteFoot use plastic in what’s called a closed-loop system.

Products like shampoo and hand soap arrive in stores in large plastic bins. Once they’re empty, instead of going to a recycling center that could turn the bins into new plastic products, or ending up in a landfill, those bins go back to the manufacturers. They are cleaned and reused, just like the containers that customers bring to stores to fill them.

In the grand scheme of a global crisis, container reuse by individuals and small businesses is just a tiny step. But Rodgers-Hubbard said she hopes this business model can also influence big business and governments.

“Every decision you make, the things you spend money on sends messages to the people who produce them,” she said.

Bales of colorful recyclable plastics, mostly jugs of laundry detergent

The idea seems to be gaining ground in Savannah, where after just over a year in business, Rodgers-Hubbard is preparing to open a physical store. In addition to recharging, she also hopes to hold workshops on other sustainable practices, such as composting or mending clothes instead of throwing them away.

“My goal is to make sustainability simple and accessible to people,” she said.

That’s part of what brought new customer Samantha Keough to a recent LiteFoot pop-up: she was looking for a local business like this to avoid ordering online.

“Importing products from elsewhere has such a significant carbon impact,” she said. “If I can get it here and find it at a farmers market or find it from a local company that makes it, that makes it a lot easier on the environment.”

Like Rodgers-Hubbard, she’s trying to reduce her own carbon footprint — and she hopes taking action herself will influence others around her.

“I have the hope and the dream of having children myself, and I want them to be able to have a healthier environment,” Keough said. “And if I can have my little impact and everyone I know do their little impact, maybe it will have a bigger impact.”

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