The Refill Pantry in London Road is all about plastic-free wholefood shopping. I linger outside and peer at the window display, marvelling at its impressive product range. It is filled with innovative plastic-free products including metal straws, cloth sandwich wraps, bamboo dental floss and wooden toothbrushes.

The wholesome smell of pulses, grains and seeds fills the air as I walk in. The place is abundant with organic food products. The walls are lined with dispensers chock-full of beans, grains and pasta to the right and baking ingredients and nuts to the left. In the middle is a tall wooden table displaying jars of gummy sweets and stacked with empty jars. I feel as if I’ve travelled back in time to The Little House on the Prairie and into Mr & Mrs Oleson’s store. I can see Mrs Ingalls now, busy decanting dry goods such as wholewheat, flour and lentils.

I watch the regulars stocking up on flour, sugar, nuts and dried fruit. They seem to be one step further than many of us to living a zero-waste lifestyle. I feel a bit like an outsider as there appears to be a procedure to shopping here. Customers are in the zone, scooping, pouring, dispensing, weighing and labelling. They have brought all sorts of empty containers along, from jam jars to ice cream tubs or lunchboxes, and paper bags cost only 2p.

I meet the staff, Sashi and Livvie. We start chatting and they show me some interesting products like a collapsible coffee cup made from bamboo.

“Wow that’s so cool as it’ll fit into my handbag,” I say.

I then ask Sashi to guide me around the shop, happy to admit that I’m new to all of this.

“You just weigh your empty jar, fill it, weigh it again, label it, then pay," she says. "Simple!”

By only buying what we need as shoppers, we take back control and no longer need buy packaged versions which often hold more than we need. Not only does this save money but it creates more space in our larders.

My first stop is the pasta dispenser. "How many grams would you like?” I stare at her blankly “I don’t really know.” She smiles. “Well I only use two thirds of a packet at a time usually.”

Sashi estimates that I only need 300 grams instead of the usual 400 grams in a plastic packet that I have no option but to buy in supermarkets. I’m attracted to the pasta made with rice and corn given that it’s a bright yellow colour and decide to give it a go. It feels good trying something different. “And it’s very low in gluten,” she reminds me.

I chat with a Spanish customer who comes into the store every fortnight and is busy in the dried fruit section; she has placed fourteen figs in a jar, no more, that’s all she wants. “One for each day!” I laugh. “Exactly!” she agrees. I’m slowly realising that that’s the whole point, one of the fundamental advantages of these shops is that you can purchase food that suits you and fits in with your own eating habits.

Initially, I notice the customer demographic is the younger generation, then as I stick around for a while, I notice older customers coming in. Sashi agrees that the younger generation is acutely aware of what is going on but reminds me that for their more mature customers “it’s all going back to the way it used to be anyway”. We just need to regress almost and “go back to the old ways,” Sashi assures me. Sometimes learning is about unlearning. I think back to when I would sometimes join my father and take a short walk to our local off licence once a week before dinner. Returning the empty glass bottles was all part of buying more Tizer, Coca Cola, lager and wine. It was the obvious thing to do and nobody thought anything of it.

I want to try something new. Sashi shows me new the soya mince, which looks a bit weird. Apparently, she has a regular customer who mixes it in (50/50) with her weekly Monday night Bolognese meat sauce, cleverly integrating soya into their diets. She doesn’t tell her family and they don’t even notice!

Sashi senses me getting distracted and moving towards the chocolate dispensers and jars of gluten free chewy sweets. “Would you like to try some of our chocolate and hazelnut chocolate buttons?” She must be telepathic!

I pour some into a paper bag. “They’re delicious!” she assures me. “…and better for me than my usual little bar of Dairy Milk.” I admit and buy 150 grams.

Despite only being open for about two years,The Refill Pantry was a finalist of the ‘Mayor’s Pride award 2019’ – Environmental Champion of the year category for showing "exemplary innovation and commitment" to green action within the community.

I’m curious about green cleaning and walk to the back area of the shop to have a look at the organic detergents and soaps. The Eco Brand cleaning products, shampoos, conditioners and shower gels smell mild and natural.

I must admit my first question is, which products am I using? What is the name of the company? I am shown lots of brands including Sesi, Faith in Nature and Suma. The aromas from the coconut shampoo and lime basil and mandarin conditioner are infused with sweet and spicy essential oils.

A selection of some wonderfully fragranced herbal soaps are on display unpackaged in several ceramic jars. I love them and will bring a small muslin bag next time. I spot an apple jojoba and sweet almond oil shampoo bar. It would feel weird spreading a bar of soap all over my head. Then there’s the Fit Pit deodorant. I’ve never seen anything like it! A cream deodorant applied with fingertips which melts on contact with warm skin.

“Of course, the age-old problem remains.” I confide. “They simply cost more than their supermarket rivals. We all have bills to pay and adding and extra say £10 to our bill for the same amount of shopping is the last thing we need.”

I’m hoping that they’ll give me the counter argument. Livvie replies: “As more and more of us move towards a plastic-free future and make that lifestyle shift, these types of products will inevitably become cheaper. Also The Refill Pantry tries to keep abreast of Waitrose prices.”

I’m impressed with her answer.

Neither Sashi nor Livvie are suggesting that we all become environmental activists or vegans overnight, just that we start small by making conscious decisions in our day-to-day lives. I suppose we all need to wake up and take personal responsibility. I see the point, as the need to protect, conserve and nurture our planet for future generations is becoming more obvious by the day.

We’ve reached the point now where the truth is that we’re all drowning in plastic. Our bins are constantly full. I can imagine how stressful that must be for big families. Personally, I’m annoyed that we need to worry about our small-scale domestic recycling when most huge corporations are not doing the same. Apparently, there are no recycling regulations in place for manufacturers, so often they end up ‘downcycling’ where plastic is just broken down and new products are recreated that become unrecyclable, ultimately destined for landfill and releasing toxic waste.

Today I have been inspired and educated and I look forward to popping into The Refill Pantry a couple of times a month to try out new products. Sashi and Livvie have been a joy and taught me so much. Hopefully, as we individually reduce our carbon footprint, the government and corporations will slowly see a big change in consumer behaviour and will realise the growing critical need for sustainability while still being able to make a profit, and without continuing to disregard our beloved planet Earth.

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6 FM Radio Verulam at