Spotlight Series

The Nickel Refillery

The Nickel Refillery is a zero-waste community hub and retail store in Sudbury offering package-free foods, ingredients, and DIY products. It hosts regular workshops, offers dish rentals and has an Energy Exchange program that is fueled by passionate and committed zero-wasters. It places value on all zero waste efforts, including innovation, teamwork, humility, and community level impact.

Interview with Liz Anawati, Owner/Founder of The Nickel Refillery
By Diamyn Lauzon, NORDIK Institute

1. What inspired you to start your work and create The Nickel Refillery?

I’ve spent over a decade working in the local emergency department as a registered nurse, and that’s where all of this really started. As you can imagine, medical waste is significant. I was in a position where I wanted to recycle as many bottles as I could, however, I started finding out we didn’t really recycle things and began wondering where it was going when it left the department. The breaking point was when we had ordered lunch and received packs of forks and knives and wet naps…I wondered why send all this waste…what a waste of resources and money. This waste highlights a gap between what actions can and need to be taken to maintain a healthy community and what people’s expectations are in terms of convenience. I started paying more attention to this, asking myself, what happens to all this stuff? What can we do about it? What are we doing about it? We decided to fill this gap and give the community the tools they needed to reduce waste by opening The Nickel Refillery on October 5th, 2019.

2. What is the motivation behind your social enterprise?

I think a big part of the motivation is that there’s been very little in our world that has been untouched by single-use plastic. It’s not just in our oceans, it’s in our fresh water, in our creeks – it’s in Junction Creek. I think if anyone takes a close look at the shores around Sudbury they’re going to see all the microplastics building up there. Now that I have two children, I have a reason to pay attention to what their future is going to look like, and I have a responsibility to do something about it. We all do. We all need to create a better future for those who are about to inhabit it.

Another part is that I really enjoy bringing the community together. I think Sudbury needs these community spaces, these hubs, that inspire hope and humanity and growth in a safe way. Even though what we do can sometimes be seen as radical, it’s done in a very safe, soft, kind way. I think anybody, from any walk of life, can relate to it.

3. Who do you hope to reach and impact?

I think the target audience is everyone. It really is. I really hope The Nickel Refillery can grow to be that one-stop-shop for people to come to get everything they need while being mindful of waste.  I tell people you really don’t need to aim for perfection when it comes to zero-waste. There’s no point. No one can be perfect in the system we have, we’re a product of the tools we have. What we can do though, is provide some of those tools to help you (as us) eliminate some of the waste. I hope that we can touch everyone in some way – whether it’s dish soap, or an ingredient to make hand cream, or whatever it is – I just hope everyone can find a place there.

Overall, we’re trying to rethink the norms. We’ve all been taught Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, but it’s also about refusing to accept new things or things that we don’t have use for, and paying more attention to our intentions throughout the day. It’s not about being mindful all the time, we are all human – it’s not about perfection. It really comes down to being a little more mindful of what we’re using, where it goes, what we’re doing with it, and asking, do we need it and why do we need it? I hope that we can help people become a little more aware of the day-to-day choices and make some kind of difference in the community.

4. Would you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?

Yes. This work is a passion and worth doing to improve and support the community I live in. I try to remind myself daily, “what can I do better? How can we improve?” This work is something that’s going to make an impact locally, and not just in terms of waste but in terms of community. I’ve always encouraged those intentions with all my employees, right down to the volunteers we have. They all carry those same intentions. We are a social enterprise, and so, I am a social entrepreneur.

5. Does this term, social entrepreneur, resonate with you? Why or Why not? What words or phrases might you connect with more?

‘Social Enterprise’ sounds so stuffy. I’ve always used the term ‘community space’ for The Nickel Refillery because it feels more inviting. I use ‘social enterprise’ to convey that we are responsible to do something and to give back. I use it to help communicate accountability. Community space communicates that everyone is welcome and invited into the space −and yes, that’s true, but as a social entrepreneur and a social enterprise, we take our responsibility and accountability as a business for the community seriously.

Beyond being an education space, we offer Teracycle boxes. We invest in these boxes so people can have a place to put the waste they can’t get rid of through normal channels. We take accountability for our own waste and what we put on our customers. For example, we brought in Bentgo boxes for kids and they are wonderful boxes but you cannot get them without a plastic wrap on top, inside of a cardboard box. I fought over it for a long time, trying to decide whether or not to bring them in because people were requesting something for kids. We decided to bite the bullet and brought them in, however, we warned every customer about the packaging. We told them to take off the plastic while in the store and we’ll take responsibility for it. We will put it in the TerraCycle box.

The term social enterprise and social entrepreneur keeps me focused on that goal. I think we could use a softer term to communicate it, but it helps me stay focused.

6. What barriers or challenges have you encountered when advancing your work, or during your social entrepreneurship journey?

I think the biggest challenge has been the learning curve. In my Master’s I never had any intention to start a business. I was a skilled emergency nurse for nearly a decade and that’s where my focus was. Opening a business was never on my radar. So, the biggest learning curve and challenge was the unknown, and not putting the effort into getting a business mentor. We didn’t really go in with the mindset that we would be successful, not having the foresight to realize that what we were doing could and would be great for the community and that it would be successful. We should have had that mindset from the beginning, instead, it created a lot of challenges for ourselves because we didn’t necessarily prepare ourselves the way we should have.

The second challenge is bulk. Bulk is messy, and there’s a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work involved to make the store function and looking good. Keeping jars cleaned, working with twenty litre containers all day every day, refilling them, tapping them, cleaning spills, lifting them−it’s a lot of work. We have some really, really great team members that put up with some really messy disasters. Knowing what kind of infrastructure we needed to house this stuff was another big challenge.

Not having a template, is probably my final one. The zero-waste store is not something that’s been done for a long period of time anywhere. Most of them have opened within the last two years, and not many are more than two years old. There’s not a lot of capital knowledge or human capital to tap into to learn more, so you are sort of re-inventing the wheel.

7. How did you confront those challenges and barriers, and what resources are needed as you move forward?

Ultimately everyone wanted it to succeed, and that’s how we overcame those barriers. Everyone had the motivation to figure it out.

I definitely would have reached out to a female business entrepreneur, someone who does retail. I know PARO exists, and there’s a number of other options. The Sudbury Regional Business Centre gave us some good resources but I should probably have done some more in-depth searching. Getting some kind of one-on-one business mentor, I think would have been really beneficial. Someone who wouldn’t have been a competitor to me but would have been able to help guide me.

Moving forward, we are definitely looking to move into a larger space, one that can better accommodate all the things we have and lay it out in a way that makes sense to the customers. I think we would probably want to invest in better equipment and technology. With times the way they are it makes it hard to want to invest in anything right now. Hopefully, we’re heading towards a bigger space and better technology to make it easier for customers and our staff to function.

8. What would have made this process easier for you?      

I wish I would have taken more time to anticipate the challenges and the possibility of growth. You don’t know what you don’t know until after the fact. I think it would have been nice to have some kind of practice run or mentorship ahead of time to really see what kind of space we needed. In truth, we never imagined surviving long term. We didn’t envision the future enough, we didn’t use our vision as a template, we used ‘what do we need right now’ as our template so it didn’t give us much room to grow. Anticipating the vision versus living in the now would have made things a bit easier.

9. Has COVID-19 impacted your SE or organization? If so, how have you adapted?

COVID-19 impacted us the most at the start because right away it was no reusables. Everything that Plastic-Free Sudbury worked towards, everything the Nickel Refillery represented, was suddenly told “no”. I talked to public health. All of our people are certified through public health and have their Food Handler Certification, so I knew we were equipped internally, and willing to deal with whatever came up. I can never thank our manager enough for sticking it out. I spent five days straight creating a website that didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but we stuck through it, we got jars, we got labels, we did our best to figure it out.

In the end, it was the zero-waste community that kept it going. We made a lot of mistakes, and things were done kind of weird, the product weights aren’t right but that’s ok.  People knew we were doing our best and the community did everything they could to keep us going.

The best way we adapted, really, was pivoting quickly and not allowing ourselves to succumb to the barriers that were put in place. Reusables may not be accepted in a restaurant or takeout drive-through, but we can do it. We did our pivot. We can equip ourselves to safely clean reusables. We closed the store, but we were open every day for people to drop off and pick up jars. We lasted that way with the online store for over two months Fortunately, we are still open and the online orders are still available.

10. How important is local a face-to-face community of support?

That’s what got us through COVID. I think it’s very important. The Nickel Refillery is more than a store, it’s a community and a way of living. People understand that the bottom dollar is not our goal, and never has been. They know they can trust us, and that we’re doing our best and when we do make mistakes I think they feel that, and they understand that. I think we’re very lucky we had six months plus of face-to-face community of support before COVID hit to gain that loyalty and develop that customer service that the customers (and we) came to know and love.

11. What do you hope to see your social enterprise become in the future?

I can draw it out in my head, ideally. The Nickel Refillery is large and roomy, it has a garden where we can grow and sell food and herbs, and teach people how to grow their own, it has an education area, it has a workshop space for DIY and gatherings….it sells food and household goods. It’s a one stop shop for a healthy community. We want to be a platform to normalize this−to show that waste reduction and community health are interlinked and not radical…we should all wonder where waste goes. I want to make space to share knowledge. We have a lot of wonderful minds in Sudbury that are doing amazing things and we need this knowledge out there. As much as we want to be a popular shopping destination and bulk retail store we also want to make it cool to learn. I feel there’s a lot of groups across the city doing amazing things but their work is disconnected from one another and news is just not getting out there the way that it should be.

And so in the future, I see The Nickel Refillery becoming a one-stop-shop and hub. To be a hub of knowledge, growth, sharing, community, and a place to buy your staples. A place to connect all those wonderful groups across the city, and share their knowledge with everyone. No one can sustain themselves on their own. If everything is disjointed, it’s not convenient enough, and people won’t do it.

Why do we think single-use plastics became so popular? It’s convenience. We’ve become accustomed to convenience and we need to shift that, but we also need to meet people where they’re at. We need to meet that need of convenience, instead of radically trying to shift and change people, why not become that convenient place and make it easy for people to live sustainably and reduce waste?

12. Are you involved with any other community initiatives?

At the moment, I’m going to say no, because I’m at home full time with my two young children – I had a baby in December and a two-year-old. Since COVID hit in March the only energy I’ve had has been for my kids, and to keep The Nickel Refillery up and running.

In terms of community initiatives, I am still active with Plastic-Free Greater Sudbury, I help brainstorm action and participate in the odd cleanup around the community with Junction Creek Stewardship Committee. Since the Nickel Refillery is more than just retail, it ties into a lot of other healthy community initiatives, for example, paying attention to the work of Coalition for a Liveable Sudbury, and reaching out to existing community groups to see what they’re doing. Over the summer we donated bulk shampoo containers to Myths and Mirrors who spent time out in the community distributing food and goods to those who needed it during COVID. We’re always trying to see who is out there that can use our help.

13. Are you aware of other social entrepreneurs or those with innovative ideas that need support or resources, or might be interested in being featured in a Spotlight?

I guess I know a lot of grassroots, to be honest, I don’t know of many social entrepreneurs, but there are likely many. There is Sudbury Shared Harvest. It’s a great one. It is a charitable organization with a mission to cultivate community health. They connect people to food and the land it comes from.

We also have the Junction Creek Stewardship Committee. They’ve been around for twenty years and they focus on restoring our local Junction Creek, which run all through Sudbury. They’ve partnered with Plastic-Free Greater Sudbury and they do large cleanups every month with different groups and offer education in schools. They’d be really great to reach out to.

There’s also Coalition for a Liveable Sudbury. They’re pretty spectacular. I originally heard of them because we had a company that wanted to build condos on this little lake. I went to them because I heard they help bridge knowledge. It’s all volunteer too, that’s the crazy part, they basically sat down and gave me a list of things to tackle. ‘Here’s how you reach city council, here’s how you do this and here’s how you do that…’ and they bridged the gap with all the knowledge so that I could accomplish a goal I was after to help improve the city. Their mission is environmental largely, to build a healthier Sudbury. They’re pretty well known throughout the city. They do amazing work.

Thank you very much.