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Weekend edition October 28, 2023 | Shannon Smith

Ditch trash and opt for treasure at Knoxville’s only zero-waste refillery

What is a refillery? A place where you can bring your own reusable containers and fill up on household staples without having to buy more single-use plastic.

Take a minute to picture the bottle of dish soap next to your kitchen sink. Now picture the containers holding your laundry detergent, deodorant, sunscreen, and spices. Are they all made of plastic that only gets used once? For most people, the answer is ‘yes.’

One Knoxville woman is working to change that answer to ‘no’ by opening the city’s first-ever zero-waste refill store, KnoxFill.

“I started KnoxFill in March of 2021 out of an extra room in my house,” said Dr. Michaela Barnett, Owner of KnoxFill. “Back in those days, we were just a milkman-style delivery service. We offered at-home delivery, then we expanded to pick-up with local business partners, and since then it’s really been off to the races. We added a mobile refillery last year and opened our brick-and-mortar in April of this year.”

What is a refillery? A place where you can bring your own reusable containers and fill up on household staples without having to buy more single-use plastic. KnoxFill offers a variety of bulk items, everything from dish soap to deodorant, sunscreen to cereal, teas to lotions. It also smells really nice inside.

“You’re helping solve the plastic pollution crisis and getting some really phenomenal products at the same time,” said Barnett.

Barnett, whose customers call her Dr. Fill, has always been obsessed with trash.

Dr. Michaela Barnett, Owner of KnoxFill.

“It’s because, unlike other environmental problems that can be much less tangible, trash is something that we can immediately see our role in,” she said. “Anytime I take my trash can out, I see how much my household is producing. When I see trash on the side of the road, or in our local rivers, I can connect those products to my own consumption behaviors.”

That led her to start recycling programs in high school, composting programs in college, and even get a PhD studying waste issues. But what Barnett learned is the best way to mitigate trash pollution isn’t to clean up the litter, it’s to never make it in the first place. That’s where the refillery comes in.

“We have 3,000 households that refill with us,” Barnett said. “We’re diverting hundreds of thousands of containers every year.”

Aside from visiting the store in South Knoxville, KnoxFill also has a mobile refillery (named Fillomena) that staff takes around the region.

“It’s something that makes this concept more accessible,” said Barnett. “So for folks that don’t live in Knoxville or close to South Knoxville, we take this mobile refillery out and about in our regional community so people can refill and purchase our zero-waste products in a variety of places. And it really helps that it’s just the most darling thing you’ve ever seen.”

It’s true. The 1982 Burro camper that Barnett found on Facebook Marketplace and remodeled is pretty cute.

KnoxFill also works with local businesses who want to use sustainable products. They can refill their soaps, shampoos, and more in gallon-sized containers that they can return and refill at KnoxFill.

“We source our products locally and regionally whenever possible because we are local, and we’re committed to our local Knoxville community,” said Barnett. “We source with other regional suppliers that have the same values that we do, which is using clean, usually plant-based ingredients that have closed-loop supply chains. That means we’re not just getting products in these 55-gallon drums and recycling them. We actually send these containers back to our suppliers to be cleaned, sanitized, refilled, and sent to other refineries around the country, or back to us.”

These are extra steps Barnett takes to make her business more sustainable, but she said it’s worth it to see the impact she and her customers are making.

“I think people are hungry for change,” she said. “I think we see the problem and we don’t always know what to do about it. We offer an option to folks to feel like they can be part of the solution instead.”

If you want to see, purchase items from, or smell KnoxFill for yourself, you can visit the refillery Tuesdays through Sundays at 3211 South Haven Road in South Knoxville.

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