Fill It Up
Hancock refillery is blazing a trail to a more sustainable Keweenaw
By Jennifer Donovan
What started as a New Year’s resolution to make their own household more sustainable has mushroomed into one local couple’s commitment to help the Keweenaw area improve household sustainability, with a retail store in Hancock to support the effort.
Briana Tucker and Travis Wakeham run Refill UP, a shop where customers can buy non-plastic containers and sustainable products to keep in them, such as hand soap, shower gel, laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, household cleaners, lotions, bubble bath and sunscreen. They also sell a variety of unique, natural goods such as bamboo brushes, collapsible cups, reusable metal straws, toothpaste in recyclable aluminum tubes, deodorant in glass jars, band-aids and muscle wraps made of bamboo, fiber bags, dryer balls and candles.
They described their sustainability journey and the shop it birthed at a public forum sponsored by the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Nov. 13.
What is the problem with single-use plastic, such as shampoo, lotion, or hand soap bottles?
“Eleven million tons of plastic enter our oceans every year,” Tucker said. “And once plastic starts to break down, it becomes too small to capture. Microplastics have been found in drinking water, rain water, even the dust in the high desert. People are consuming plastic.”
Tucker recalled getting a roll of beeswax wrap—an eco-friendly substitute for plastic wrap—for Christmas in 2020. It got her thinking: “What else could we do to improve our sustainability? How can we avoid keeping the things we use every day in plastic?”
Searching for inspiration online, she started following an African-American woman in Ohio who runs a refillery where people can bring non-plastic containers and refill them with sustainable and eco-friendly products. In February 2021, during Black History Month, the woman was highlighting black women entrepreneurs.
“That got the wheels turning,” said Tucker. “I wondered if I could do that?”
Neither Tucker nor her partner, Travis Wakeham, have business experience. Tucker is the Enterprise Coordinator for the Pavlis Honors College at Michigan Tech. Wakeham is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Biological Sciences there.
But they decided to jump into the unfamiliar waters of small business.
How did jumping into a new business with so little experience feel?
“Terrifying,” said Wakeham. Tucker nodded vigorously.
They did their homework and learned about Michigan’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the MTEC (Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation) SmartZone’s Smart Start program, which provides free training, mentorship, and coaching for people who want to start a small business. They enrolled and invested their COVID-19 relief money in renting, refurbishing and stocking a small storefront on Quincy Street in downtown Hancock.
“It’s so nice to have resources like the SBDC the SmartZone in our community,” said Tucker, who still relies on SmartZone vice president Jason Mack for advice and occasional hand-holding. “Not just resources, but free resources.”
In the summer of 2021, they tested community interest by selling at farmer’s markets. In the fall, they opened their shop.
Refill UP celebrated its one-year anniversary in October, already logging 700 purchases by 500 unique customers. Their Facebook page has nearly 1,000 followers. Tucker said they have diverted 840 plastic containers from landfills this year.
They look for sustainable partnerships, buying from local and Michigan-based small businesses that produce sustainable products responsibly.
“We want to offer products that are vegan, cruelty-free, paraben and sulfate-free and responsibly made,” Tucker said.
They try to buy closed-loop products, meaning that they can return the packaging to the manufacturer for reuse or recycling. Among their suppliers are Mama Suds, a Michigan small business that produces sustainable laundry detergent; Tiani, another Michigan brand of body care such as hand soaps and lotions; and Zefiro, which uses bamboo and wood to create items often made of plastic, such as nail brushes and pot scrubbers.
The couple wants to expand their business, “but thoughtfully,” Tucker said. “We have to ask, are we ready?”
The answer depends both on data and on how the couple feel about it emotionally, she explained.
Refill UP has started to expand already, sponsoring Trick or Trash at Halloween—collecting and recycling candy wrappers. They also offered a costume exchange: bring in an old costume and exchange it for a different one instead of dumping it. They’re starting to put on workshops where people can learn to make sustainable holiday gifts.
“We’re encouraging small steps, options that are easy to do and won’t break the bank,” Tucker said. “It’s about making small changes today that will lead us to a better tomorrow.”
Both Tucker and Wakeham still work full-time at Michigan Tech during the week, opening the store on weekends.
“It’s definitely tricky balancing our Michigan Tech jobs, the store and our personal life,” Tucker said.
It’s been quite a learning curve for Wakeham.
“Business is very different from teaching science,” he observed. But Wakeham has always loved a challenge.
“I want to get more engaged in the business,” he said.
Refill-UP is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 323 Quincy Street in Hancock. They are on Facebook and Instagram and online at https://refilltheUP.com.