The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Michaela Barnett wants to help break your consumer chains

Written by

Michaela BarnettMichaela Barnett is the founder and owner of KnoxFill. She is seen here outside her South Knoxville home-based business in this submitted photo.

 

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.”

Reusable glass containers in different shapes and sizesKnoxFill delivers personal-care products or offers them for pickup in these attractive reusable containers.

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.”

Filling a glass jar from a bulk containerMichaela Barnett fills an order for KnoxFill in this submitted photo.

Rate this item
(3 votes)
Published in Earth

Related items

  • FGS calls on TVA to get serious about addressing the climate crisis

    As Hellbender Press reported in April, the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to phase out its use of coal. And as we mentioned in an action alert, TVA is conducting a scoping process pertaining to the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for retirement and replacement of the Kingston Fossil Plant. TVA is preparing similar EIS for its other remaining coal-fired power plants as well.

    Although TVA lists "construction and operation of solar and storage facilities" in these scoping documents as an alternative for replacement of coal as the power source, it has made no secret of its belief that construction of gas-powered combustion turbines (CT) and natural gas pipelines to feed them will be the best solution to replace the outdated generation capacity.

    Unlike other power utilities, TVA has been making it more difficult, financially unattractive or impossible for distributed renewable energy, storage and even efficiency projects to get realized, according to proponents of renewables and some of TVA’s local power distribution partners. TVA also reneged on its agreement with other utilities to make large amounts of wind power available to the Southeastern United States through the Plains & Eastern Clean Line high-voltage direct-current power line project.

    Below, we reprint the statement submitted by FGS during the public comment period for the Kingston Fossil Plan Retirement.

    (Hellbender Press is a self-funded project of FGS).

     

    The Foundation for Global Sustainability urges TVA to truly step up to the challenges of climate change

    The action alternatives in the dockets for the replacement of TVA’s coal fired power plants are shortsighted and most disappointing.

    As a quasi-federal entity with a de-facto monopoly over a vast area of our nation, the Tennessee Valley Authority should strive to spearhead, exemplify, and not only meet — but exceed — most of the federal goals for decarbonization.

    By basing plans primarily on data of historic trends — unquestioningly projected into the future — TVA is apt to commit yet another horrendous miscalculation; it is prone to saddle itself with even more stranded assets.

    Addressing the climate change crisis

    Rarely a month passes without scientific discoveries of natural feedback mechanisms that aggravate the consequences of climate change. Signs that Earth’s natural life-support systems are approaching tipping points are multiplying.

    At the same time that uncertainty about prevailing conditions over the lifetime of infrastructure investments is growing, technologies are evolving at an increasing pace. Many private-sector corporations have already realized that time-proven business practices are no survival strategy.

    What’s called for today is more nimble management. TVA needs to focus on cooperative, adaptive planning for more flexible, responsive operations.

    A multitude of smaller investments that seek to attack problems from a diversity of facets will have greater probability of success than monolithic huge investments that are hard to revert, abandon, or repurpose.

    We encourage TVA to take a step back, to first look at what it can do to help improve the sustainability and resilience of our regional and local economies and of its large, small, and individual customers, WITHOUT investments that lock in carbon emissions for decades.

    Although we welcomed, appreciated, and supported TVA initiatives such as Energy Right, Green Power Switch and Generation Partners, one has to admit that in the larger context they amounted to little more than public relations Band-aids.

    Distributed renewable energy generation and storage

    It is high time for TVA to stop stonewalling renewable energies.

    The promising potential of widely distributed renewable energy generation and storage to minimize transmission losses and to boost community resilience is still largely untapped. It lends itself to easily manageable, quick turn-around, incremental projects that can readily be evolved and fine-tuned as new conditions, greater insights, and better technologies emerge.

    People in TVA’s service areas are no less likely to welcome and personally invest in solar energy and storage than the people of Germany have done, despite getting far less sunlight in their northern latitudes than we enjoy here; if only TVA relaxes its severe restrictions and abandons its adversarial stance.

    We call upon TVA to embrace, as major planning objectives, environmental sustainability and efficiency from energy generation all the way through end use.

    Sincerely,

    Wolf Naegeli, PhD
    President
    Foundation for Global Sustainability

  • One town tried to eliminate waste. Plastic posed a problem.

    Kamikatsu Yuki Shimazu

    Kamikatsu, Japan, famously declared its goal was to go waste-free by 2020. It didn’t quite get there.

    This story was originally published in The Revelator

    One of the many unfortunate outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the quick and obvious increase in single-use plastic products. After COVID-19 arrived in the United States, many grocery stores prohibited customers from using reusable bags, coffee shops banned reusable mugs, and takeout food with plastic forks and knives became the new normal.

    Despite recent scientific evidence that reusables don’t transmit the virus, the plastic industry has lobbied hard for a return to all things disposable plastic. Inevitably, a lot of that plastic will continue to flow into our environment.

    While COVID-19 has certainly thrown a wrench into the hard-earned progress we’d been making in reducing waste, eliminating plastic pollution entirely was always going to be challenging — with or without a pandemic. The jarring rise of single-use plastics is an expedited version of a familiar trend. Plastic production has been steadily increasing for quite some time.

    As a zero-waste advocate, I’ve seen how the tsunami of plastic continuously being produced and flooding our planet has made achieving zero-waste goals incredibly difficult. The sheer amount makes it hard to safely and efficiently dispose of plastic, no matter how hard we try.

    But as I examine the problem, and search for solutions, I keep coming back to one noteworthy example. 

  • Keep your butts out of the Tennessee River

    Cigarette butt recycling bin 4

    Dollywood joins Tennessee Aquarium effort to limit the introduction of cigarette butts to our shared waterways.

    “As all humans need access to clean water, it’s an incredibly important treasure to protect.” — Dr. Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium vice president of conservation science and education.

    Cigarette butts are everywhere, and are perhaps so familiar they go unnoticed by the millions of people who pass them on our streets and roads.

    Not only are they unsightly, they contaminate our water resources — the puddles after a sudden rainstorm, the streams that flow through our landscapes, and the stormwater drains that ultimately lead to the Tennessee River. The butts quickly break down, polluting water with “tiny plastic fibers and a devil’s cocktail of chemical compounds,” according to the Tennessee Aquarium.

    The Chattanooga aquarium has partnered with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, to stem the rising tide of cigarette butts in our waterways.

    Dollywood has also embraced the effort, making it the first theme park in the world to recycle all properly disposed cigarette butts.

    “One cigarette filter can contain enough toxins to kill aquatic life within two gallons of surrounding water,” said Kathleen Gibi, executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

    The action fits the mission of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, which is to inspire the public to take action to protect and preserve the Tennessee River and its tributaries across a seven-state region encompassing Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

    Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the Tennessee Aquarium have partnered to install cigarette-butt recycling receptacles on the aquarium’s campus. They placed eight of these bins in heavily traveled locations.

    “Everybody contributes to the river, whether positively or negatively, so finding stakeholders and inspiring them to take action is what will make the biggest impact,” Gibi said. She also emphasized the importance of the Tennessee Aquarium’s educational programs in protecting water quality.

    The aquarium’s eight cigarette-butt bins are among more than 480 such bins that Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful has installed within the river’s watershed. The shared effort will install another 90 during the coming months.

    Dollywood is among the 73 sites that have installed bins, making it the first theme park in the world that recycles all the cigarette butts it collects, Gibi says.

    Partnering to remove cigarette filters from the river is only part of the aquarium’s ongoing mission to understand the impact on freshwater habitats from microplastics pollution.

    Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education, said, “It’s urgent to understand better ways to manufacture and dispose of plastics, so we reduce their impact on the environment.”

    The Tennessee Aquarium recently installed a new exhibit in the River Journey Building where visitors can discover the impact of microplastics on freshwater environments. The Tennessee Department of Transportation funded this exhibit as part of their Nobody Trashes Tennessee litter reduction campaign.

    In September 2020, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the University of Georgia River Basin Center convened a digital gathering of 50 researchers conducting pioneering studies into the impact of microplastics on freshwater systems.

  • Help tip the scales toward environmental justice for all: Here's how

    Make your voice heard for environmental justice

    The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council is seeking public input on a series of recommendations to the Biden Administration to address environmental justice issues across the United States. Air and water pollution caused by coal mining, toxic coal ash spills, and natural gas pipelines are a few examples of such problems in our region. These issues often impact low-income people and people of color the most, and there is a strong need for communities impacted by fossil fuels to build vibrant, diversified economies. 

    This is a chance for you to communicate your concerns about how these environmental issues impact disadvantaged communities while important policy decisions are under development! 

    The council will meet on May 13 to discuss:  

    • Environmental justice policy recommendations to Congress and the Biden Administration;

    • A new Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which will help identify disadvantaged communities and target federal funding; 

    • Updates to a Clinton-era Executive Order (EO 12898) which directed federal agencies to address environmental justice issues in Black and Brown communities and among low-income populations. 

    Public comments will be accepted in writing until May 27. To submit a written comment, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

    Register to attend the meeting or submit your comment today!

    Public comments will help to inform the future work of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and they will be incorporated into the record for federal agencies’ consideration. 

  • It’s time we start wearing our hearts on our sleeves!

    In the spirit of Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, consider what you can do to help Mother Earth and its inhabitants.

    Adopting a more sustainable life style to reduce one's personal ecological footprint is easier to wish for than to accomplish. Some measures that would reap a significant  environmental benefit, such as making a home more energy efficient, may require a substantial investment of physical effort, time and money that will pay back over time only.

    Deliberate choice of clothing, however, is a simple course of action for anyone to start making a big difference in social justice, climate impacts and environmental conservation.

    The fashion industry is responsible for around 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than maritime shipping and international flights combined!

    World production of clothing has doubled in the last 15 years. Until the 1950s, it was common for garments to be used until worn out after having been passed along to second and third wearers. Nowadays, that's a rare exception. Most items end up in a landfill within days or weeks after having been purchased and worn just a few times. Massive amounts of overstock items are routinely discarded, not having been used once.

    Low prices — made possible by cheap synthetic fibers produced with fossil fuels and by sweatshops that churn out textiles under often inhumane conditions — contributed to this relatively new phenomenon of consumerism.

    Along with single-use packaging, plastic fibers common in today's textiles are a major source of invisible microplastic fragments that float in the air we breathe and get into the water that leaves the washing machines. Some of these particles may absorb toxic chemicals and be taken up and accumulated by fish, livestock and, eventually, humans.

    Sustainable Jungle, an Australian nonprofit, has an excellent article about the global predicaments caused by the fashion industry. This is a treasure trove of great ideas, practical suggestions, experiences and links to further how-to instructions. It will not only help you get off the fast-fashion treadmill, it will aid you in discovering or creating a style that accentuates your personality.

    Sustainable Jungle: How to Avoid Fast Fashion
    See also ScienceDirect: Plasticenta — First evidence of microplastics in human placenta
  • Green energy to blame for Texas grid collapse? Not so much.
    NYT: Fossil-fuel defenders falsely blame renewable energy sources for crippling Texas electric grid collapse

    Politicians and media personalities spread lies that cited frozen wind turbines as the reason millions lost power across the oil-rich state during an unprecedented intrusion of cold air in mid-February.

    In reality, it was a failure of the natural gas supply chain caused by unusually low temperatures and rare snow and ice accumulations. Some turbines did fail because of ice accretion, but wind power provides only a small fraction of Texas electricity, which is distributed by a deregulated network independent from the rest of the national power grid.

    Fossil-fuel allies also cited the unprecedented deep freeze and accompanying winter storms across much of the nation as evidence global warming doesn't exist.

    In fact, climate change fueled largely by carbon emissions means more devastating climate-linked weather anomalies can be expected, both in winter and summer. In this particular event, Arctic disruptions in the jet stream allowed frigid polar air to descend much farther south than it typically does.

  • Hellbender Press

    The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

    (ONLINE version 0.7)
    Copyright © 2021 Hellbender Press | Foundation for Global Sustainability
     
    Hellbender Press
    P.O. Box 1101
    Knoxville, Tennessee
    37901-1101
    865-465-9691
    This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
     
    Editor and Publisher
    Thomas Fraser
     
    Editorial Board
    Bo Baxter
    Jason Bradley
    Kim Pilarski-Hall
    Chris Kane
    Wolf Naegeli
    Lauren Parker
    Amanda Womac
     

    Hellbender Press: The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia is a digital environmental news service with a focus on the Southern Appalachian bioregion. It aggregates relevant stories from across the news media space and provides original news, features and commentary.

    Espousing the “Think Globally, Act Locally” ethos of FGS, Hellbender Press promotes the conservation and study of the environment and protections for air, water, climate, natural areas, and other resources that are critical to human health and a robust, resilient economy.

    The Hellbender also champions civil and human rights, especially in matters of environmental justice, equity of access to natural resources and the right to a clean environment.

    Hellbender Press is a self-organizing project of the Foundation for Global Sustainability's Living Sustainably Program. All donations made for Hellbender Press to FGS are tax-deductible. We offer a free environmental news and information site, but grants and charitable contributions are encouraged and needed to support our work. Much of the content is provided on a volunteer basis by individuals and organizations that share a common cause.

    Hellbender Press encourages the submission of original and relevant articles and photography for consideration to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.