Maybe your dreams of zero waste are thwarted by the less than stellar bulk offerings available near you - you've checked various bulk shopping guides, but you've come up empty-handed. (More like, empty-bottled). If there are things you need that you can't buy in bulk locally, a few companies are closing that gap by offering mail order refill, primarily for things like body care & cleaning supplies.
The idea is: you order what you need by mail, use it up, and then send back the empty bottles, which the company will clean and refill and send back your way. It's a good option for reducing dependence on the plastic-bottled shampoo, dish soap, and more that we have to turn to when something isn't available in bulk. Below, some of the mail-order refill offerings that are currently on the market, and a few ways to make sure that your efforts aren't doing more harm than good.
-Plaine Products (pictured above): You can find shampoo, conditioner, and body wash available in refillable metal bottles. Their scent is minty and rosemary-y, which is refreshing and lovely. Bottles come packaged in a cardboard box with paper tape and paper packing, and you send it all back to Plaine once you're ready for more - so, the cardboard and packing materials get reused again and again, too. Also: If you want to try these out, you can use the code "Litterless" for 10% off your purchase.
-Fillaree: Fillaree is a small-batch soapmaker in North Carolina, and they're just beginning to offer a refill mail order program for products like their bulk cleaning spray and dish soap. Refills come packaged in cardboard boxes, sealed with paper tape, with a label you can use to send the container back once it's empty. Refills won't be available on the Fillaree website until this fall, but you can email email@example.com to test out the program early, at a discount!
-Common Good and Co: If you're already a fan of Common Good's nontoxic cleaning supplies, consider supporting their Kickstarter, which aims to help them offer low-waste refills by mail (it ends this week, so hop to if you're interested!). You can also pre-order refill packs directly on their website, or check their stockists to see if they offer a refill station near you.
-If you have a product that you love (and enough storage space to house it!), you can check online to see if you're able to purchase it directly in the same size packaging that bulk stores offer. You'll pay more up front, but likely way less overall. Some examples of things you can find in much larger sizes: Dr. Bronner's castile soap, Giovanni shampoo, or EO Products shower gel. It's like buying in bulk without being subject to the whims of what the stores near you will carry.
A few more thoughts:
-I don't have a definitive answer on whether mail order refill is more ecologically sound than just purchasing something from a store near you in regular plastic packaging. I've read that it is - that the energy and resources required to make a plastic bottle, for instance, outweigh those needed to ship said bottle. But if you have any insight into this, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
-For some things, you might be able to skip mail order refill entirely by finding a completely package-free alternative. For example, unpackaged bar soap is really easy to find, and can be use to replace shower gel and liquid hand soap.
-Look for plastic-free, thoughtful, and reusable outer packaging. So, bonus points if the cardboard box your refill order comes in is made of recycled material and is what you send your refill order back in. And, more points for paper tape in lieu of plastic tape.
-If you wait until the bottles your shampoo / soap / etc. came in are empty and then send them back, well, you're going to be shampooless for a few weeks until the refill can make its way to you. So, it's a good idea to decant these products into your own containers as you get close to the bottom, and then send the bottles back before you're completely out.
Have you ever used mail order refill? I'd love to hear what you purchased and how it worked out. And, if bulk offerings are hard to come by in your area, you can find more thoughts on lower-waste hacks like these, here.