Mel Menhams owns and runs Cupboard Love, a mobile refill shop based in and around Woodbridge, Suffolk. Here, she explains how she swapped primary school teaching for zero waste shopping
I first came across the concept of ‘zero waste’ shopping at the beginning of 2018, around the time the first Blue Planet series came out. Before then I, like a lot of people, was unaware of the extent of the problem of single-use plastic and plastic pollution in the oceans. I visited a few Zero Waste shops in other parts of the country and loved the concept! After much research and planning, I decided to open a mobile shop that could bring refill shopping to different towns in the area, and also help me avoid unnecessary plastic packaging on my shopping at the same time.
I was a Primary School teacher for 15 years before leaving to pursue this very different path and start my own eco-business! The idea behind refill shopping is that customers who want to avoid the single-use bottles of personal care and household cleaning products, or the packaging on food products like pasta and rice, bring their own containers to me and fill them up instead. I buy the food in bulk and, by reusing containers of all sorts that they already have, customers reduce the amount of packaging going into the bin or to recycling. It’s crazy that a packet or bottle is designed to only be used once when it can be reused over and over again (even longer in the case of glass or metal containers!). It’s also a great way of only buying what you need – you aren’t restricted to the amount in a packet from the supermarket. If you only need a portion of pasta per week because you live alone, then that’s possible when you fill your own jar or tub. This helps customers to spread the cost and reduces food waste. I also sell lots of products that are made from natural materials and are better for the environment, so a customer who refills their bottle of washing-up liquid one week, might go on to buy plant-based sponges to replace those horrible green plastic ones, or a bar of soap or a shampoo bar or a reusable coffee cup. For me, it’s as much about selling as it is talking to customers about the environmental issues, and showing them that there are excellent alternatives out there.
My regular customers in Woodbridge and Framlingham really appreciate being able to shop in this way and some are very happy to be able to avoid supermarkets altogether! Those that have been shopping with me since the beginning would find it hard to go back to buying packaged foods and single-use bottles! I take my van to the markets in these towns every week, and I also visit a couple of other locations on a fortnightly basis. I used to visit surrounding villages but, sadly after Covid, I found that a lot of people went back to wanting the convenience of supermarkets and home delivery, and my weekly visit did not fit in with their work/school routines. It does take a shift in mindset, some planning and organisation but if you can get into a routine with it, then it’s a really satisfying way to shop, and every small reduction of single-use plastic contributes to ‘being part of the solution’!
I stock over 150 food products and a wide range of shampoo and conditioners, body washes, hand soaps, laundry liquids, etc, as well as simple ‘eco’ cleaning products like bicarbonate of soda, green bleach, citric acid and white vinegar. I use a number of wholesalers – Suma and Infinity are both co-operatives that have been going for many years. My nuts are all organic and sourced from small traceable producers and Hodmedod’s supply British-grown grains and pulses. I aim to offer excellent quality products at prices that are competitive (and often cheaper than the supermarkets). Most of the liquid products come from a UK-based small business called Miniml, who offer a closed-loop delivery system, so all the empty containers are returned to be washed, refilled and reused – so no waste!
I can be found at Framlingham Market every Tuesday and on one or two Saturdays a month between 8.30am and 2.30pm; Woodbridge Market every Thursday between 8.30am and 2.30pm and, at the moment, I alternate between Grange Farm Shop in Hasketon and Rendlesham Mews on a Friday morning, 11am–1pm. I always post a schedule for the month on my social media pages (@cupboardlovehome) or a calendar can be found on the website.
I really hope that things improve economically in the coming year as things are tough for small businesses at the moment, and environmental issues seem to have lost the profile they had pre-Covid. With the cost-of-living crisis, customers are understandably being cautious with their spending, but I’m really keen to tell people that shopping in this way does not have to be more expensive than shopping at the supermarkets. Obviously, I’d love lots more people to come and shop with Cupboard Love, but if I’ve brought the issue of single-use plastic and the idea of refilling and reusing to the attention of your readers then I’m happy! Unlike five years ago, when I started as the only refill shop in Suffolk, there are now many: in Ipswich, Leiston, Stowmarket, Hadleigh, Bury, Lowestoft and more – just Google ‘zero waste shop near me’! In an ideal world, a more sustainable packaging material would replace plastic, and all the supermarkets would offer refills as the norm, but until then, Cupboard Love will continue to bring this service to the people of Woodbridge and Framlingham!
Visit Cupboard Love Shop and follow @cupboardlovehome on Instagram and Facebook. Cupboard Love will be at Woodbridge Market on Thursday December 21 and Framlingham Market on Saturday December 23. For future dates, check the calendar.
Featured image of Mel Menhams – supplied