- Oliver Parini
- Brittany Iafrate of Chandler's Dry Goods
When she was living near Portland, Maine, Brittany Iafrate regularly visited a "refill" store. There she could buy household products in bulk and place them in reusable containers brought from home.
But when she moved to Vermont in fall 2020, the eco-conscious consumer found no similar option in Chittenden County. She had to come up with other ways to reduce single-use plastic.
"I tried to buy the biggest size of the most sustainable product I could find, which is really the best you can do when you don't have a refill store," she said.
Iafrate, 29, solved her no-waste dilemma when she opened Chandler's Dry Goods in January. On College Street in Burlington, it's the first refill store in the city, and perhaps in all of Vermont.
The shop sells a variety of household necessities, such as dishwashing liquid, hand soap and laundry detergent, which are stored in huge glass pump dispensers and purchased by weight. Customers come in with a refillable vessel, weigh it while empty to calculate the tare, then fill it with product and weigh it at the register to pay.
Chandler's also carries personal grooming items, including solid shampoo (think bar soap for your hair), chewable toothpaste tablets that lather for brushing, and refillable pots of cream deodorant to apply by hand or with a tiny spatula.
A selection of other home goods and gifts aims to help people do better, sustainably speaking: reusable lunch bags and backpacks made of waxed canvas, natural-bristle dish scrubs with wooden handles, wool felt balls that improve the efficiency of a clothes dryer, and soap-saver pouches that extend a cleansing bar's life to the final shard.
"It felt like something that would fit in here, and it does," Iafrate said of Chandler's Burlington presence. "We get a lot of people who come in here like, 'I've been wanting to see one of these.' 'I've been meaning to go to something like this.' 'I'm so glad you're here.' We get so many different comments about it that it makes me feel really welcomed and connected in a way that I didn't expect."
Refill shops have popped up along with growing public awareness of plastic pollution and the proliferation of single-use packages.
- Oliver Parini
- Showroom at Chandler's Dry Goods
About 300 million tons of plastic waste are produced every year worldwide — an amount equal to the weight of the entire human population, according to a report from the United Nations Environmental Programme. Since the 1950s, about 60 percent of the plastic produced has ended up in landfills or nature, the report said.
Earlier this year, the New York Times cited research from an Australian environmental group, the Minderoo Foundation, that indicated the average American uses and throws away about 110 pounds of single-use plastic annually.
Chandler's occupies two large rooms in the space that used to house Sukha Yoga studio. Befitting a proprietor who pledges to reuse, Iafrate outfitted the space with racks and tables from the now-defunct JCPenney department store in Berlin.
Iafrate welcomes customers with advice and encouragement, not judgment and preaching. If someone forgets to bring a container, no problem: Chandler's keeps a stash of reusables forgotten or donated by other customers.
"I try to keep it approachable," Iafrate said on a recent afternoon in her store. "I don't want to judge folks for coming in. I don't care if you bring in your Seventh Generation plastic jug," she added, referring to the Burlington-based company that sells natural household products nationwide. "You're refilling it. That's the whole point. You have to start somewhere."
Many natural foods shops and grocery co-ops — including Chittenden County's Healthy Living Market & Café and City Market, Onion River Co-op — offer bulk items that customers can store in their own containers. But they lack the scope of products of a refill depot such as Chandler's.
"You can get a dish soap and some laundry [detergent] and maybe a body wash," Iafrate said. "But you can't really get any of the liquid shampoos and conditioners."
Iafrate grew up in Skowhegan, Maine, which had a single co-op that "smelled weird," she recalled with a chuckle. She graduated from Pennsylvania's Allegheny College with a degree in environmental studies and went to work on a Maine farm.
At the end of the growing season, she took a job at Johnny's Selected Seeds, an employee-owned seed and farm products purveyor in Waterville, Maine. During her five years there, she earned her master's degree in sustainability sciences from a Unity College online program and started working remotely for the college's admissions department.
Last October, Iafrate joined her partner, Chris Perry, in Vermont. To combat the stir-craziness of pandemic isolation, they would venture out of their Essex apartment for ice cream and drive around. They noticed many storefronts with "for lease" signs.
- Oliver Parini
- Dish soaps at Chandler's Dry Goods
Meanwhile, Johnny's Selected Seeds offered its employee stockholders, including Iafrate, a one-time chance to sell back their shares to the company during the pandemic. Iafrate jumped at the opportunity and netted $30,000, which she used to launch her business.
The word "chandler" is an English word dating from the 14th century meaning candle or soap maker, and it's the maiden name of Perry's mother. "Dry goods" are commodities sold in bulk.
Iafrate chose the College Street location for its proximity to Church Street, keeping customer convenience in mind. "I wanted somewhere that wasn't just a destination," she said. "I wanted it to be able to be accessible by public transport, and I wanted you to also be able to grab lunch or dinner or coffee or go to the co-op, so you weren't just driving to me."
Late in August, Megane Hamel and Kristen Potter, who are both studying nursing at the University of Vermont, dropped in at Chandler's and stopped at the hair care display.
"I really want to try solid shampoo," Hamel told Potter.
"I've used it before," Potter replied. "I really like it."
The students said they try to shop with sustainability in mind. At Chandler's, they've found items with "clean ingredients" that they don't see elsewhere.
"Before, there wasn't anything like this," Hamel said.
"Or you'd have to pay for shipping, which defeats the purpose of sustainability," Potter added.
Most of Chandler's liquid cleaning products come from Rustic Strength, a family-owned company in Missouri. It offers a "closed-loop" system, which means nothing is left to discard. The liquid soap comes in five-gallon buckets that Iafrate empties into dispensers, then returns to the company for refills.
Not every product at Chandler's qualifies as closed-loop, but it has to meet Iafrate's criteria. Ingredients must come from sustainable sources that aren't detrimental to the environment or toxic to fish or wildlife. Iafrate avoids palm oil, an element in many household and food products that's a major contributor to deforestation. She looks for sustainably harvested bamboo and wood, as well as essential oils processed without harmful practices.
For most of the liquid cleaning products, Chandler's charges by the ounce, ranging from 29 cents for hand soap to $1 for bathroom cleaner. The latter is concentrated, so three ounces are added to a 16-ounce bottle that's then filled with water. The solid shampoo bars, at $9 or $10 each, are among the pricier items but last three months, Iafrate said.
"A lot of people come in thinking it's going to be more expensive, but I pay a lot of attention to price, because I don't want to price people out," she said. "I want it to be pretty comparable to Seventh Gen."
Iafrate also tries to carry locally or regionally made products whenever possible, even though they may cost more. She sells goods such as dishwashing blocks and laundry tablets from Farm Craft VT, a producer that uses materials grown on its Shelburne property or by other nearby suppliers.
Chandler's carries dishwasher pods with a nonpetroleum, water-soluble alcohol casing, but Iafrate would love to offer a no-waste liquid or powder in bulk. She also wants to add products for pets, menstrual care and babies.
Some items are a challenge. Chandler's stocks bamboo-handled toothbrushes that say "100% biodegradable" but have nylon bristles, which aren't. Iafrate is researching better alternatives.
"I like getting feedback from people [on] what they wish I would carry," she said. Someone asked for cleaning vinegar, for example, so Iafrate now offers it. Other customers have requested a Cuban mop, which has a long handle with a T-shaped head around which they can wrap a towel or other reusable cloth.
Consumers are increasingly savvy about the products they buy, and that bodes well for Chandler's business, Iafrate said: "We're realizing the impact that plastic has."