This Anchorage ‘refillery’ aims to eliminate packaging waste. Here’s how it works

Jennifer Gordon, one of the co-owners of Blue Market AK, along with Jessica Johnson, gets her cart ready for a farmer’s market (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

Jennifer Gordon hasn’t quite figured out the right word to describe her new business venture.

“‘Refillery’ is a word people have used a lot,” Gordon said.

As in, a place to refill your shopping needs. Gordon is one half of Blue Market AK, an operation that, right now, is physically housed in a refurbished wooden trailer cart parked in a garage and towed around to area farmer’s markets.

Just as Anchorage is preparing to ban plastic bags from local retail, the new venture is trying to go a step further: eliminate packaging waste altogether. Right now, Blue Market is doing that by selling shampoo, mason jar accessories and other sustainable-minded dry goods from the cart. But it aims to set up a permanent store selling locally-made products, food and general goods that incorporate sustainability at every level.

Large bottles of mostly Alaska-made shampoos and hygiene products sold out of Blue Market AK’s cart. Customers are encouraged to bring their own re-usable containers, then charged by the ounce (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

On a recent weekday, Gordon and her business partner Jessica Johnson were getting the cart prepped to haul over to a nearby farmer’s market. On one side were several big jugs of shampoo with dispenser pumps on top. Most of these products are locally made in Alaska. Customers bring their own glass jars or reusable plastic bottles, pump shampoo in, then pay by the ounce.

Their ambition, Johnson explained, is to expand into a brick-and-mortar store selling primarily locally-made products stripped of unnecessary, disposable packaging material. Even sticky, liquid, viscous products shoppers may never have encountered except inside a plastic bottle.

“We’re going to have olive oil and honey and vanilla, and we hope to have all of that on tap so you can refill just about anything,” Johnson said.

As the two women have hauled the Blue Market cart to farmer’s markets across Anchorage this summer, a lot of their work so far is about getting customers acquainted with a different conception of shopping.

“It’s either educating or it’s re-educating,” Gordon said, noting that decades ago plenty of stores sold bulk goods that were not prepackaged. “It’s remembering that it happened before and how it works.”

“For other people, this is a totally new concept,” she added.

It wasn’t that long ago that Alaska was significantly more commercially isolated, its residents better acquainted with basic conservation practices, which often entailed liberally re-using or re-purposing items when the situation called for it.

Besides squirts of locally made shampoo, the women sell durable products to replace more ubiquitous disposable ones. An example are cloth sandwich containers and locally-sourced beeswax wraps for transport food in lieu of plastic Ziplock bags.

As she began thinking about how to cut out single-use plastics, Johnson said she inventoried all the disposable items in her daily habits and replaced them: re-usable bags stuffed into her purse, a stainless steal straws.

“I carry a spork in a little zipper bag,” she said.

The two women say they are not anti-plastic, they are anti-waste.

The “basket of shame,” which Johnson and Gordon set up near their cart as a repository for disposable packaging and waste that accrues in the process of commerce (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

Gordon recommends that people structure a challenge for themselves to begin phasing out disposable items. That’s what she did when she posted to Facebook about trying to go a month without using disposable plastics, noting when she inevitably hit snags.

One particularly tricky modern convenience to eliminate she’s noticed: paper towels.

“I told my family, I said, ‘We are not buying paper towels any more, and you better not buy them either,'” she laughed.

Gordon is experimenting with taking her family’s old t-shirts, cutting them up for rags, and using them as a paper towel substitute. Which has rankled her teenage daughter.

“I’m like, ‘Well, sorry, it’s a rag now. And that’s what we do with rags, we wash off the counter,'” she said.

The business partners hope that the city’s pending ban on disposable plastic bags will spur residents to get a little more mindful about their broader consumer habits. That means taking the three R’s of sustainability (“Reduce, re-use, recycle”) and adding one more: refuse.

“The very first thing is refuse the plastic in the first place. If you can’t do that, then reduce it. Use less,” Gordon said. “The last thing is recycle. We need to turn our concept upside-down. ‘Oh I recycle everything, so it’s ok.’ Recycling is great, but it’s the last thing.”

That is particularly true for Alaskans, she added, because of how limited the recycling options are. Many items exported out of state for processing, a trip that involves burning non-renewable fossil fuels.

Gordon and Johnson want Blue Market to move into a permanent site in the months ahead. Regulations on selling some of the local items are tricky, but one of their hopes is to give local growers and makers a place to sell items once the summer-season farmers markets wrap up.