Michaela Barnett wants to help break your consumer chainsWritten by Thomas Fraser
KnoxFill offers Knoxville home delivery and pickup of sustainably sourced personal-care products in refillable containers
Michaela Barnett has traveled the world, is an accomplished science writer and editor and is closing in on a doctorate from the University of Virginia.
Now she’s a business owner with a focus on sustainability and waste reduction and that has proven to be her true raison d’etre. She gets out of bed with joyous purpose and determination. And she sings to start her day.
“My husband says it’s like living with this annoying Disney character,” she said with a light laugh.
“I’ve got so much energy and joy and excitement,” said Barnett, who launched KnoxFill in March after eight months of research and preparation and works out of her home to fill multiple orders each day.
KnoxFill offers sustainably sourced personal-care items, detergents and other everyday household products in reusable glass containers for pickup or delivery. The product line includes shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotions, laundry detergent, and dishwashing and castile soap. Barnett even offers safety razors, bamboo toothbrushes and refillable toothpaste “bites.”
“We are very new, and small and mighty, and growing really fast. The community response has been beautiful, phenomenal. I’m overwhelmed in the best way by it,” Barnett said during an interview at her home and KnoxFill storeroom in a leafy neighborhood off Chapman Highway in South Knoxville.
She and a part-time employee fulfill online orders via deliveries within select zip codes across Knoxville. Customers can also pick up their products from a fragrant cedar chest on Barnett’s porch, or at an expanding list of cooperating businesses, including Jacks, an eclectic coffee shop and plant nursery on North Central Street near Happy Holler in Knoxville.
Barnett is the daughter of a fossil-fuel executive and initially grew up “super conservative, evangelical, (and) home-schooled on a farm” in Ohio before her family relocated to Houston for her father’s job. Now she’s determined to help wean the world, starting with Knoxville, off the petrochemical plastics and packaging that dominate so many product streams.
“We really need to move upstream in our waste system, instead of just focusing on downstream solutions, like recycling, and composting,” she said.
“We need to make sure the waste never gets created in the first place.”
The business is an outgrowth of her dissertation research at UVA, which examines the behavorial science behind how people interact with the waste system and its consumer cycles.
“People seem really hungry for an alternative,” she said shortly before the interview was interrupted by Rick, a friendly neighborhood cat who saunters into Barnett’s friendly house three times a day for food and the occasional tick treatment.
Even if plastic waste ends up stored in relatively compact and secure landfills in developed countries at the end of its life, or is recycled (the vast majority of plastic is not), its production and transport generates air and water pollution, Barnett said. Plastic and other petrochemical plants, as well as landfills and incinerators, also tend to be sited in minority or low-income neighborhoods.
“We have to zoom out from this end disposal point, and think about that every container we’re using had to be mined or extracted, manufactured, shipped, and used; and all the energy and time to take it to this alternate disposal point.
“What is the environmental impact of these products across their lifespan?”
Indeed, sometimes plastics ultimately break down into microplastics, a relatively new and little-understood environmental threat posed to the Tennessee River and other waterways.
Corporations such as Unilever and Procter and Gamble have used packaging to build brand loyalty that stretches across generations, Barnett pointed out, so there is not a lot of incentive to offer more sustainable packaging alternatives. And petroleum giants want to stay relevant and profitable as they adjust their business operations to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“As we start the transition of society away from fossil fuels toward more renewable energies, fossil fuel companies are looking at plastics as their next frontier,” Barnett said.
“We have to decarbonize this sector, too. Because they are trying to sneak oil into our homes in all these other ways.”
Barnett wants to help consumers break that nefarious cycle. She offers samples to those who may be hesitant to break from their favorite brands.
KnoxFill gets its sustainably produced and all-natural supplies from a number of regional and local sources, including Rustic Strength, a Missouri-based family owned company with a long list of “chemical no-nos,” Barnett said. She receives the products — shampoo, body wash, lotion and detergent — in large bladders and transfers them to individual, reusable glass containers. So Barnett closes the loops with her suppliers, and her customers can close their own waste loops, too.
Customers can also order natural soaps and shampoo and conditioner bars from sustainable Knoxville-area companies such as Knox Girl Soap, Dandy Soap and Solace Farm Homestead.
And that potential customer base is wide and strong: “Anyone who brushes their teeth, washes their hair, uses lotion, you are an ideal Knoxville customer.”
Two such customers opined on their KnoxFill orders in solicited emails.
"Once you start to notice waste, it’s hard to ignore how it piles up with every purchase — most of the time, you can’t opt out,” Amber Heeke said in an email.
“Short of picking up at-home bath product manufacturing as a hobby, you’re really just stuck in this trashy trap where the best you can do is cross your fingers for a shampoo bottle made from 70 percent recycled plastic. Good luck,” Heeke said.
“KnoxFill makes it very simple. If there is an easier way to reduce waste than having great refillable products delivered to your doorstep by a woman on a mission, I don’t know about it. Besides being inspiring, it’s deeply refreshing to be able to buy the things you have to have without having to make trash at the same time,” Heeke said.
“I truly can’t believe this concept didn’t come to Knoxville sooner. I’m grateful for the folks who rolled up their sleeves to, you know, fill a need Knoxville didn’t know it had,” Heeke said.
“I’m sure there will be folks who follow closely in KnoxFill’s footsteps. What’s lovely is, I get the vibe that this is part of the KnoxFill mission -- to lead by example and make a cleaner city, one jar at a time.” Heeke said in the email.
Another KnoxFill customer heralds the fact that the products are all natural, as well as convenient to come by.
“I was so excited to learn of a refill store in Knoxville! I am always looking for ways to reasonably and easily limit my waste and plastic use. KnoxFill is an exciting option for anyone looking for the same,” said KnoxFill customer Kendall Wimberley in an email.
“The pickup process was easy for me, as I live in a building where drop offs would be tricky. I can't wait to try more items and keep up the reuse/reduce cycle! I highly recommend KnoxFill, whether you want to reduce personal waste or just want eco- friendly, high-quality cleaning and care products,” Wimberley said.
Most of the products from KnoxFill are reasonably priced, Barnett said, or have a slight premium to cover costs, many of which are set by the suppliers and beyond her control. But she wants to make it as easy as possible for her customers to engage with her zero-waste system.
“I think sometimes we have this idea about sustainability that it’s a leap, it’s too expensive, too hard, the products are subpar,” she said.
“This is sustainability that’s easy for you, because I make it easy, and all of our products are better than the other ones you can get, Barnett said.
“Everyone is doing the best they can. People really want to live sustainably. They don’t want to have a bad impact on this planet that we live on. But at the same time, it can be challenging, it can be confusing,” she said as she wiped off her glasses, which had fogged up because of the mask she wore during the interview.
Her system offers “sustainability that’s really accessible and they can live in line with the values that they have,” Barnett said.
"Environmental sustainability is so completely inextricable from issues of equity and social sustainability. This is not just for the wealthy people in Knoxville. This is for everybody and I’m going to keep working to make it even more accessible.”
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