Zero-waste profile #1: The Soap Dispensary.

Image by Boris Mann |

Image by Boris Mann |

This article is part of the Starfish-original series, "Strides Towards a Zero-Waste Country", where we highlight the efforts of Canadian organizations working towards integrating circular economy and zero-waste frameworks into everyday life.

Who: The Soap Dispensary

Where: 3718 Main Street, Vancouver

What: Refill outlet for soap, personal care products, and cleaners

Why: Provide customers with refillable soaps and other products in order to reduce the need for single-use plastics

w: | t: @SoapDispensary | f: The Soap Dispensary | i: @thesoapdispensary

Do you find yourself facing an internal struggle every time you are forced to buy another plastic bottle of dish detergent, another plastic bottle of hand soap, or another plastic bottle of bathroom cleaner?  If so, you are not alone.  Every household and personal care product purchased in a plastic bottle contributes to the ‘single-use’ plastic phenomenon, troubling many of today’s consumers.  But what power do we have, as the people buying these products, to reduce the amount of waste produced just from buying items that we need for our homes? 

The Soap Dispensary gives us that power.

Turning a lifestyle into a business.

Previously a customer herself at a long-running soap refill shop in Victoria, British Columbia, Linh, co-founder of The Soap Dispensary, loved the concept of refilling products, and was glad to see that less waste was being generated from doing so. When she moved to Vancouver, however, she was quite disappointed to find an absence of similar establishments within the city.  For the first little while, she would save her containers, lugging them all the way to Victoria every time she visited the island.  Of course, this was not a long-term solution to the problem, so Linh started thinking, “If Vancouver doesn't have a refill shop, we'll create one!”.  She hoped other Vancouverites felt the same way.  

In their first two years, The Soap Dispensary helped to eliminate approximately 11,000 single-use plastic containers from waste or recycling streams. 

The shop is operated based on a closed loop system. “Customers bring in their bottles and have them filled with soaps and other products,” Linh says. “They can reuse their containers over and over. On our end, we work with manufacturers who supply us with products in bulk quantities. We receive many products in reusable bulk containers, and we wash and ship them back to the manufacturers when they are empty. The manufacturers will then refill them and ship back to us. So we are preventing a lot of plastic waste from entering the recycling or garbage stream”.  In order for the organization to successfully carry out a circular economy framework, everyone, including consumers, retailers, and manufacturers, need to be involved and work together.

Striving for zero-waste in a wasteful world.

Product packaging still remains an issue, however – even for an organization determined to produce as little waste as possible. “We get great natural products, but some of them arrive packaged in plastic bags.”  Linh acknowledges that some waste is still virtually unavoidable, such as plastic wrapping on biodegradable sponges sold by the shop, which is required to meet government health standards.

Sometimes, however, companies can be persuaded to modify their packaging practices. “For example, we have convinced some companies to ship biodegradable packing peanuts instead of Styrofoam ones”.  The dispensary has also convinced some businesses to sell their products in bulk and to reuse containers instead of selling disposable ones.  The remainder of the time, it’s a tough decision between accepting the excess packaging that comes with some products and perhaps paying to recycle the materials, or finding new companies to do business with. “It's very complicated and frustrating, and we will probably always be dealing with this problem until the government starts implementing policies forcing manufacturers to be responsible for packaging waste”.

Going far beyond waste reduction.

With 75% of their soaps made locally, many products from like-minded Vancouver organizations have found themselves a home among the shelves.  They also sell a range of reusable containers to help new customers kick-start their journey to zero-waste shopping.

At the store, you’ll find not only ‘finished’ products for direct refilling, but also raw ingredients for customers to make their own products at home.  “I learned how to make soap one year, and it was such a pain to source all of the ingredients to make our own products, so I wanted to make raw ingredients more readily available to other hobbyists and DIY champions.”

For other individuals or organizations looking to implement zero-waste or waste reduction initiatives in their community, Linh advises, “make it positive and inspiring – not about shaming or scaring people into action. You don't need to change everything overnight. Start with changes that are manageable and meaningful, and add to it as you go.”