Forget BYOB. These unique Bellingham stores make you bring your own container. Here’s why

Walk into Pumped’s small storefront at the end of the hallway of the Ohio Street Workstudios in Bellingham and you’ll find soap made from goat milk, conditioner bars, dish soap in powder form and a wall of empty industrial-sized jugs. One thing you won’t find, though, is single-use plastic.

“I have two young kids, and we were accumulating a lot of waste in the house,” the store’s owner, Leah Foster, said in an interview. “So I was looking for low-waste living options and there just weren’t any in Bellingham.”

So in July of 2020, Foster decided to start her own business, first as a truck before moving into her space on Ohio Street. Pumped sells household items without the packaging — customers refill their own reusable containers and then pay by weight. When Foster runs out of a product, she washes its container, sends it back to the supplier and has it refilled.

“I’ve had a lot of business ideas in my lifetime, and this is the first time I’ve followed through on one of them,” Foster said. “And it has been, besides the kids, the coolest thing I’ve probably ever done.”

Pumped sells bulk household items by weight, to eliminate the need for single-use plastic.
Pumped sells bulk household items by weight, to eliminate the need for single-use plastic.

Just a month after opening, Foster was joined in the Whatcom County refill-store industry by Shawna and Seppi Morris, who opened Living Pantry in Blaine.

“Since living here in Whatcom County, we’ve been wanting to create a business to serve the community,” Seppi said in a phone call.

The business has since expanded to Bellingham, opening a Roosevelt-area location in July of 2021. Seppi estimates that Living Pantry has saved over 23,000 plastic containers between the two stores. Pumped had saved nearly 5,000 plastic containers when Foster last ran the numbers in October.

The U.S. produces 82.2 million tons of waste a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As the single-use plastic has caused debris to pile up in oceans, refilleries have emerged around the world as a more sustainable way for customers to shop.

There are roughly 1,300 zero-waste stores in the U.S., according to Public Interest Research Groups, and 500 are listed on the Refillery Collective’s directory. Just five years ago, Greenpeace estimated there were 400 worldwide. Living Pantry and Pumped are the only two stores in Whatcom County listed in the director — the next closest stores to Bellingham are in Seattle, which has three.

More than containers

Both Living Pantry and Pumped have a strong focus on community-building as well. Foster hosts “fix-it fairs” once a quarter, where customers can learn how to repair their clothes, jewelry and appliances instead of replacing them.

“A big part of what I do is education and community building,” Foster said. “That’s my favorite part of the job. So with this building, I can host events and workshops and people can look to this, ideally, as a place they can come to learn.”

For Living Pantry, being a community-centric business means sourcing most of its products from northwest Washington.

“I haven’t done the numbers lately, but there was a point where 65% of everything we offered in our store was from Whatcom County,” Seppi said.

Living Pantry “refillery” lets customers fill reusable containers with household items.
Living Pantry “refillery” lets customers fill reusable containers with household items.

Seppi added that Living Pantry’s customers are mostly regulars who appreciate the store’s unique business model.

“Last year we were forced to move our Blaine store — because our lease was up,” Seppi said. “And when we put it out to the community, we literally had hundreds of people giving money, coming to paint, helping us move. And these were just customers.”

That’s by design. From the start, Living Pantry sought to give its customers something different than other stores.

“We wanted to create a very different retail shopping experience, a very different customer experience,” Seppi said.

But over at Pumped, Foster was quick to point out that as innovative as the idea of a refillery might seem, the concept is much older than single-use plastic.

“[It’s] helping people see a new perspective, a new way of shopping — which is actually a very old way of shopping that we’re coming back around to.”

Pumped is located at 112 Ohio Street, Suite 117 and is open from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Thursdays, and 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Living Pantry can be found at 2400 Yew Street in Bellingham, and 264 H Street in Blaine.