Growing up in the 80s, Oh Sok Peng lived through the copious mobile services that came to her doorstep. They ranged from uncles selling ice-cream potong, fried carrot cakes, and curry mee, to newspapers, mattresses, and grocery items like fish and veggies.
These businesses phased out when food chains and hypermarkets became more available around every corner.
Hence, one of the goals for Sok Peng’s venture, Refiller Mobile, is to bring this mode of business back, with the motif driven by sustainability and convenience.
Driven to make zero-waste accessible
Sok Peng has never been comfortable with the idea of throwing bottles away. The ex-media producer of 18 years even once asked a shampoo brand manager why they couldn’t provide a refiller service for their products.
It was a time when refiller services like KitaRefill just didn’t exist.
Decades later, Sok Peng found a zero-waste store close to her new home and started refilling her shower gel. It bewildered her that not only were products more economical, but they were also just as good as commercial brands.
The former is a non-profit organisation aiming to make sustainable living a normal part of Malaysians’ lifestyle and daily activities. Meanwhile, Trashpedia is ZWM’s service for people to learn about trash segregation.
Meeting other volunteers, Sok Peng learnt that purchasing items from zero-waste stores didn’t come as easily for those who didn’t have such stores within their vicinities.
“So I asked myself, what if there is a mobile zero-waste store that can reach out to them and be accessible? How cool will that be? It will open up an option for them and encourage more people to reduce plastic waste,” Sok Peng realised.
Thus, the first-time entrepreneur rolled out Refiller Mobile in June 2022.
To start, she bought over a van from 24 Hour Travellers, a pair of travellers who transitioned from the van life to now the boat life. Then Sok Peng shared her idea with the micro-influencers, who introduced her to their friend, Rich Samuel, who offered to build Refiller Mobile’s van without any conditions.
“It was such a big gift because I could never find anyone who can build the van in the zero-waste style better,” Sok Peng shared with gratitude.
A zero-waste store that comes to you
Operating from Wednesdays to Sundays around the Klang Valley, Refiller Mobile sells household cleaning agents, personal care, and dried food as its three main categories of products.
Due to limited space in the van, Sok Peng has to choose what she carries very carefully.
She told Vulcan Post that she’s selective when it comes to suppliers, requiring them to be on the same page as her business. They must also understand the importance of keeping the process as low waste as possible.
“It is important to find a business supplier who has the same mindset as us and is willing to grow together with us,” Sok Peng believes.
Household cleaning agents are sourced from KitaRefill, whose team have been in the industry for 10 years. Other products are from various makers and suppliers, including Langit, Soapan Santun, Nourish & Nibbs, and The Rain Tree.
Prices of the products sold by Refiller Mobile can start as low as RM4 per kg of dishwashing liquid, to RM47 for a large Yak Chee Dog Chew (pet treat).
Among some of the challenges the business faces are Malaysia’s road conditions which can get bumpy and cause losses to the business, especially with spillage of liquid items and glass containers breaking from falling off shelves.
“We drive very slow and if anyone sees us on the road, please be patient with us,” Sok Peng shared hopefully.
Refiller Mobile goes to neighbourhoods, campuses, offices, and private events for refills. It is done by appointment, as Sok Peng doesn’t want her van driving around blindly, creating an unnecessary carbon footprint.
Usually, representatives from a neighbourhood will gather a group of interested households (about 10 to 20 families) and schedule the date and time with Refiller Mobile.
Sok Peng will then remind customers to wash and dry their bottles before refilling.
“Although we prepare some empty bottles on the side (limited ones and on a first come, first served basis), we want to encourage them to bring their own. Otherwise, it will defeat the purpose of reducing waste,” the solopreneur stated.
Making zero waste an easier choice
Sok Peng shared that over three months of operating, not all of her customers so far practice or know about zero waste. She finds this rewarding as her aim is to expand the community and get more people to do this together.
“Why do they visit Refiller Mobile instead of the zero-waste outlets? I guess it is because of convenience and accessibility,” she added.
“When Refiller Mobile is parked in their neighbourhood, it is easier for them to run home and take a few extra bottles for refills.”
Customers can also pre-order products from Refiller Mobile that can be delivered to their homes. “Just like my late granny, she got most of her household items delivered to her in the 80s,” Sok Peng recalled.
In the near future, she hopes to expand her service to offices that practice recycling or BYOB (bring your own bottle) to go green. She imagines these office workers passing Refiller Mobile their bottles before they go for lunch and picking them up after lunch.
To add, the founder is open to scaling her fleet with like-minded partners to make Refiller Mobile available in other states.
Sok Peng clarified that she has no plans to open a physical outlet, simply because a mobile service gives her the flexibility to reach out to more people.
Speaking to Vulcan Post, Sok Peng is aware that the biggest challenge in running a social impact business is making a healthy revenue and keeping the business sustainable for the company.
She joked that she’s not expecting to get rich from her venture or even make enough to feed her family, but she will be working on opportunities that come her way.
That being said, she requested that all her customers (current and future) be patient with her, as she’s still just a one-woman show running Refiller Mobile, and she can’t be everywhere at once (yet).
Featured Image Credit: Oh Sok Peng, founder of Refiller Mobile