How to Get in on the Refillability Game

Take a quick look around the space you’re in right now, and one material stands out among the rest: plastic. It’s even in the clothes you’re wearing, in garments containing synthetics like polyester and nylon. And it’s most definitely in your groceries — in all sorts of single-use plastic packaging your food, cleaning supplies, and toiletries come in. 

The world produces 400 million tons of plastic annually; refilling reusable containers instead of using disposable ones can help reduce waste. (Photo: Wendy Toman)

With all that plastic comes loads of plastic waste; each year the world produces 400 millions tons of it. Despite almost three quarters of all American adults saying they try to use fewer non-reusable plastics, the problem still finds its way into landfills, streets, our bodies, and even in the deepest, darkest parts of the world’s oceans

Combatting that level of waste starts with combatting the levels of consumption that have held steady for decades. 

“When I was a kid, plastic was great. It was supposed to be great to use plastic because it was easier and faster and you didn’t have to wash it. It’s definitely a lot different than now,” Wendy Toman says. Since November 2022, Toman and her husband have been tackling the problem of waste on the retail side with their refill shop, Second Nature Refillery in New Paltz

Refill shops encourage customers to bring their own containers to reuse. (Photo: Wendy Toman)

Unlike traditional grocery stores that sell goods in disposable, mostly plastic packaging, refill shops encourage customers to bring their own containers — old Tupperware, glass bottles, bags, and the like — so they can fill up, weigh, and buy household goods in bulk. 

Second Nature Refillery is one of a growing number of refill shops in the Hudson Valley aimed at reducing waste on a local level by shifting shoppers away from buying products sold in single-use packaging. After spending several years reducing waste through local ventures like repair cafes, composting, cleanups, and community swaps, Toman was partly inspired to open up a refill shop in New Paltz after visiting one across the river in Red Hook. 

By buying their goods in 25- to 55-pound bags, they drastically cut down on packaging waste compared to the average grocery store. “There’s almost always a Dumpster out back [in traditional stores], and they’re almost always filling it up every week, so we really don’t have any trash,” she says. 

A growing number of refill shops are popping up in the Hudson Valley. (Photo: Pierce Johnston)

While the scales and rows of glass containers filled with beans, produce, soaps, and other goods might seem daunting, shopping gets easier once you build your way up. “You start small and maybe you just start refilling your dish soap, or getting your rice and beans in bulk or something like that. And then you soon realize that it’s a lot easier than it seems,” says Samantha Smith-Coleman, co-owner of Understory Market in Cold Spring.

Recycling and up-cycling are part and parcel of running any refill shop. Smith-Coleman and co-owner Lara Shihab-Eldin go to great lengths to compost, recycle, and reuse wherever they can. Something as simple as packing material could go to the local art teacher for use in student projects. When Smith-Coleman and Shihab-Eldin opened Understory in September 2021, they went in with the intention of making it accessible to both visitors and residents alike. “More and more people in our community I’m noticing are starting to come into our shop,” Smith-Coleman says. “We’re always thinking of different ways to reach different groups of people.”

The emergence of refill shops over the years might not be a new trend as much as it is a return to a time when goods and packaging weren’t seen as disposable as they are today, says Susan Freinkel, science journalist and author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Refill shops may be less of a “trend” than a return to a time when goods and packaging were seen as less disposable than they are today. (Photo: Wendy Toman)

“When people looked at the trash from the early 20th century, there isn’t a lot of packaging trash because most stuff got reused,” Freinkel says. “People consumed less. They made more themselves. They reused more of the things that they used.”

The rise of self-service grocery stores in the latter half of the 20th century preferred packaging that was more enticing to consumers over anything reusable, she explains. Refill stores try to shake things up by focusing on reducing and reusing, rather than just recycling. “It’s the model of nature — the way in which things operate in nature,” says Freinkel.

While shop owners acknowledge they’re nowhere close to saving the world from plastic waste, the practices they preach could be beneficial if promoted on a large scale. A 2021 report from the World Economic Forum estimates that if just if just 10-20% of our current plastic packaging was cut out, the level of plastic waste entering the oceans each year could be sliced in half.

Reusable containers don’t have to be glass — almost anything you have on hand can work, shop owners say. (Photo: Samantha Smith-Coleman)

When it comes to best practices for anyone looking to shop at a refill store, old containers of all sizes can work for a wide variety of goods. “So you don’t have to have the right container. It doesn’t have to be glass,” Smith-Coleman says. “We have customers that bring the bags from a pharmacy where they get their medications and fill it up with nuts.” Glass bottles, jars, and containers do work great for certain foods and liquids when washed and dried properly, because they don’t hold onto odors the same way as plastic does.

Generally, it’s best to keep the bottles, bags, and containers you use for refilling food and produce separate from the ones you use for other products like soaps and such. Many shops like Understory or Second Nature have containers or bags for sale or have a collection donated for use.

Dalvin Aboagye is a writer based in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. He’s also written for the River and Thrillist.

Recycling’s Robotic Frontier

AMP Robotics

To understand the challenges at the root of municipal recycling programs, check out a video clip from the TV satire “Portlandia.”

In a segment called “Which bin does it go in?” a character played by Fred Armesin says, “Now there is a bin for everything!” The video shows bins for sorting cardboard and paper (blue); plastic, aluminum and glass (black); then descends into the absurd. Orange bins for coffee cup sleeves. Brown bins for stir straws. Periwinkle bins for the cups. Fuchsia bins for coffee cup lids, unless they have lipstick on them. Those, of course, go into the rose-colored bins. Et cetera, et cetera. (And you’ve gotta crack up at what comes out!)

The video gets some laughs out the confusion people face when sorting recyclables, but it also highlights a big problem: Without effective sorting, the commodities that are generated by municipal programs have less — and sometimes little to no — market value due to cross-contamination.

While optical sorting machinery has long been in use to separate materials, it is far from perfect. Much of the sorting is often done by workers who stand along a conveyor belt and pick out undesirable items like plastic bags. The work is dirty, dangerous, and even more challenging due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even in the best of times, the jobs can be hard to fill.

The challenges are reflected in recycling rates. In Dutchess County, 44.1 percent of the 381,500 tons of municipal solid waste generated in 2019 was recycled, according to the county’s annual report. That’s well below the goal of 54.6 percent Dutchess established when it crafted its solid waste management plan in 2013.

The Power of Artificial Intelligence

Now some recyclers are considering technologies more familiar to science fiction fans in order to improve the sorting process.

“Companies like AMP Robotics have introduced robots with artificial intelligence systems that enable the sorting and production of high-quality commodity bales of paper and plastics, while adding safeguards against contamination,” said Bridget Croke, a managing director at the investment firm Closed Loop Partners, during a recent Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on the challenges facing the recycling industry.

Based in Colorado, AMP combines optical sorting, robotics, and machine learning to create systems that can identify and then sort items mechanically at high speed and with higher accuracy than traditional machinery.

The company says the system’s digital brain uses computer vision to identify not just material types such as plastics or metal, but also colors, textures, shapes, sizes, patterns, and even the features of brand labels. The decisions made by one AMP system can be transmitted to the cloud, where they can be compared with those of other AMP systems in order to improve sorting efficiency. In this way, the system is constantly training itself.

“[Artificial Intelligence] is very much a tool that elevates optical sorters and provides a way to sort more specifically. A.I. complements traditional optical sorters in that it allows it to select materials in a more refined way,” Mark Baybutt, AMP’s vice president of product, told Recycling Today.

The company says its systems can be installed within existing machinery at municipal and private materials recovery facilities.

Earlier this year, AMP announced its systems had sorted 1 billion individual recyclable items from billions of other materials in a 12-month period ending March 31. The company has received financial backing from brand-name investors, such as Sequoia Capital and Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“A.I. complements traditional optical sorters in that it allows it to select materials in a more refined way.”

Mark Baybutt, AMP’s vice president of product

The potential for increased efficiency is considerable. For instance, as much as 85 percent of Dutchess County’s single-stream recyclable material — plastics, metals, cardboard, and paper — is sorted at one privately-owned materials recovery facility in Beacon, according to the county’s resource recovery agency.

AMP spokeswoman Carling Spelhaug confirmed to Viewfinder that the company “does have a presence in New York State.” However, it is unable to disclose which facilities have installed the systems due to nondisclosure agreements that protect commercially sensitive pricing and application details.

AMP vice present Chris Wirth told TIME that inquiries from potential customers increased at least fivefold from March to June of 2020 and that 35 facilities used the company’s technologies in 2019.

Time to Update the Bottle Bill

Recycling

Half.

That’s the percentage of glass containers manufactured in the United States that ends up in landfills every year.

Despite the fact that glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss of purity, 53.1 percent of the beer and soft drink bottles; wine and liquor bottles; and bottles and jars for food and juices, cosmetics, and other products were dumped into landfills in 2017, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data.

That’s a lot of broken glass — 4.7 million tons of it, according to the EPA.

Broken Glass Bottles (Photo: Anders Sandberg on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

New York’s Proposed Expansion of the Bottle Bill

In New York, state leaders are envisioning a future with far lower levels of wasted glass. And they are looking to do it by enhancing a familiar tool: the bottle deposit.

New York is one of 10 states with so-called bottle bills that add a small, cash deposit to the sale of certain types of beverages. The others are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Vermont, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

New York’s bill was enacted in 1982 and amended in 1983, 1992, and 2009. It adds a 5 cent deposit to sales of bottled beverages: carbonated water, energy drinks, juice, soft drinks, and tea; soda water; beer and other malt beverages; mineral water; wine and wine coolers; and any water that doesn’t contain sugar.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed adding sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable beverages and ready-to-drink teas and coffee to the list. And state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would also include wine, liquor, cider, and distilled spirits.

Why Municipally-Recycled Glass is Hard to Get Rid Of

One of the goals of the proposals is to keep as much glass out of municipal recycling systems as possible. Glass that comes out of the municipal materials recovery facilities (or MRFs) tends to be of much lower quality than the glass that is collected through redemption programs at grocery stores and other retail outlets. That’s because the mechanical behemoths that are used to separate glass, plastic, newspaper and cardboard are not foolproof.

“When glass makes its way through the recycling system, it gets crushed and breaks down,” said Angelina Peone, Recycling Coordinator for the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. “In order to capture that, we have to capture these small pieces. So if you put anything in your recycling bin that is smaller than a tennis ball, it is going to get corralled with the crushed glass and contaminate the purity of the glass. We see things like bottle caps, batteries, small pill bottles — anything smaller than a tennis ball is essentially going to contaminate the glass.”

Recycling (Photo: Alan Levine on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

The resulting product is often referred to MRF glass, or “murf” glass. Because of its low purity, MRF glass “is extremely hard to get rid of,” UCRRA Executive Director Tim Rose said. A survey by the Northeast Recycling Council found that 38 percent of MRF glass ends up in landfills in the Northeast.

Is the Impact Worth It? We Think So

In November 2019, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology published a study assessing the impacts if just wine and liquor bottles were added to the bottle bill. The study estimated that such a change would impact 4,500 businesses and approximately 488 million containers in New York. Recycling rates of these containers, the study found, would increase by 65 percent.

Of course, that recovery would come with a cost. The study suggested that expansion would be costly for the wine and liquor industry, which would have to implement new collection procedures. New deposit initiators and dealers would experience approximately $40 million in direct costs, including $36 million in new labor costs.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley.”

Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by the wine and liquor industry and supported by the recycling industry and some non-industry stakeholders. In a joint statement, more than 50 recycling organizations and environmental groups — including Scenic Hudson — noted that it’s been more than decade since the last amendment to the bottle bill.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley,” says Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

He adds, “The bottle bill is a proven strategy that works for New York by incentivizing the return and redemption of empty containers and keeping them out of our river, parks and playing fields. The time has come to take the next step and expand the state’s bottle redemption law.”