For almost 70 years, we have been soothed and enlightened as a tv audience, by the voice of legendary broadcaster Sir David Attenborough presenting natural history documentaries. Now, aged 94, his distinctive oration gives a sombre warning to reverse a devastating trajectory the planet is headed on. Or, as he eloquently puts it, ‘The human race will regret it if we don’t act on plastic now.’
The need to save the environment from a throw-away culture of single-use plastic items regularly makes headline news. Such actions cause so much harm to wildlife and oceans. Ireland creates more plastic waste per citizen than any other EU country, with an average of 61kg per person being thrown away each year. The journey for a piece of plastic begins in the factory and ends being dumped in a landfill site. Much of it pollutes our seas and causes untold damage to the environment.
Australia is one country that has chosen to proactively encourage all its citizens to make more environmentally friendly decisions. For more than a decade, the city of Melbourne has proudly positioned itself at the forefront of sound ecological thinking. Eibhlin Fitzpatrick from Tyrrellspass, believes that her experience of living a sustainable lifestyle in Melbourne, was the reason she opened The Refill Mill on Austin Friar Street in Mullingar in July this year.
“I had studied Social Science at NUI Maynooth but didn’t know which field I was going to go into after graduating. I decided to go travelling for a while. That travelling lasted for over four years, it was a struggle to get me home! Although I had visited Thailand, New Zealand and the UK, living in Melbourne had a profound effect on me because it gave me a new passion for helping the environment in my own little way.”
Eibhlin’s Australian housemates convinced her that it was possible to live a plastics free life and help the planet in the process too. However, when she finally came home to Tyrrellspass, there were no local shops selling foods and other home essentials without plastic packaging. The nearest place for her to buy her goods ‘plastic-free’ was in Dublin. She began to make her own eco-friendly personal care products such as deodorants, shampoo, laundry powder and make-up.
“Buying plastic-free items was difficult as no local shops were specialised enough to sell only eco-friendly goods. I was able to get some fruit and vegetables but not pasta, nuts or anything similar without their packaging. Retailing was in my blood because my dad had a shop in the village and I remember helping out there on Sunday mornings from the age of 14.”
Eibhlin decided to open a shop to sell products loosely by weight so that you take in your own container or bag. The shops other purpose is to teach customers how to live a sustainable lifestyle. Every purchase made helps to reverse the harmful carbon and plastics footprint.
“I wanted to sell products that helped people to maintain a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. It was important to me that everything I sold was both accessible and affordable. Despite having overheads, I consciously try to keep prices low and get a lot of surprised customers when they see what their bill comes to at the end.”
Pandemic and Pivot
The intrepid echo-entrepreneur worked in many local restaurants to save money to finance the start-up costs for her new shop.
“I had been searching for premises in Mullingar for a few months and had my heart set on a different property. I decided to take one last look online and I saw that this property on Austin Friars Street became available, I jumped at it. Thankfully, my new landlord believed in what I wanted to do and I secured the property for The Refill Shop.”
Eibhlin finally got the keys to her new premises in late February 2020, but her plans for the fitting out of the new shop had to be put on hold because of the pandemic lockdown. Her original plan, was to open a retail shop first followed by a website, but she found herself needing to switch the two around. Eibhlin developed and launched her website in April 2020 after she completed a social media course run by the Local Enterprise Office.
She turned one of the rooms in her house into an office and storeroom. The web sales were going really well because people were discovering her business online while they were at home. Eibhlin was very happy with the response that she was getting from people on social media and managed to convert lots of initial interest into sales. She built a rapport with online visitors, who became repeat customers and then ultimately walked into the shop.
From online to bricks and mortar.
“The Refill Mill officially opened in July 2020 and I was so exhilarated because I hadn’t ever pictured myself running my own business. To be able to do something that I’m so passionate about gives me a real thrill.”
Eibhlin firmly believes in supporting Irish businesses and has actively tried to source eco-friendly items from local suppliers. The targets that she set for the first month were very conservative. They became more ambitious for her second month of trading. So far though, she has managed to hit those targets and hopes to continue beating targets.
“There is a steady flow of people coming in to the shop. It is always a very relaxed atmosphere which I’m very happy about. We are still in a pandemic so everything is still strange. I’m getting such a positive response from people who visit the shop. Lots of people are going full out and really embracing this new way of plastic-free shopping. I think the idea of sustainable living is changing people’s attitudes when they walk into my shop and see how easy it can really be.”
Eibhlin’s family and friends help her out in the shop as much as possible and she hopes to be in a position to employ someone to help her in the future. Her ultimate plan is for The Refill Mill to become a local hub where she hopes to run classes and community events that promote sustainability.
In her spare time, she enjoys going for walks and reading but especially loves spending quality time with her family. Her greatest champion is her grandmother, who according to Eibhlin, now actually enjoys going eco-shopping with her!
This article was published in the Westmeath Topic 29/10/2020.