Durham Startup Fillaree Fights Plastic Waste and Toxins With Refillable Soap

Left to right: Fillaree Production Assistant Emma D'Ambro, Founder Alyssa Cherry and former staff member Sarai Gonzales.

Within the span of three months about a decade ago, the unthinkable happened in Alyssa Cherry’s life: she found out two of the closest people in her life had cancer. The first bad news hit while she was pregnant with her first child: Her mom had ovarian cancer. Then her son was born with cancer in his brain.

This prompted a soul-searching path for Cherry that eventually led her to found Fillaree, a Durham-based startup that sells refillable soap products. The products aim to fight both plastic waste as well as synthetic toxins in bath and cleaning products that are linked to cancer.

“Luckily, I’m so grateful that they were both able to be in remission and everybody’s fine today,” Cherry said. “But that really started me on a journey of looking closely at all of the body care and all the cleaning products that I was using. That made me become much more aware that there’s so many hidden toxins in our shampoos and lotions and cleaning soaps and whatnot.”

A year or two later, Cherry also started realizing the toxicity of plastics and their environmental damage. In short, Cherry was frustrated about not being able to find anywhere that she could refill her own cleaning sprays and soaps, so she forged her own solution in Fillaree.

“I basically just took the pledge, took a risk, and decided to create the company that I really thought the world needed—that other people might want to refill too,” Cherry said.

Fillaree’s mission in helping the environment is important for Cherry and the company’s 525 subscribers, who receive refills and mail back empty bottles through the mail or use 30 refill stations across the country, with about a third of those in the Triangle. The company also has a brick-and-mortar storefront in Durham.

“It feels really great to use this awesome soap and they really do love the product and they love the integrity,” Cherry said, “but they also really love refilling. It feels really good to use your refill and it feels good to know that this company is really transparent. That’s one of our core values. So you know that we’re doing all we can to make sure that we are treading lightly in reducing our impact as a business, and also making it easy for you to do that too.”

Fillaree secured a spot as one of finalists for the Fall 2019 NC IDEA SEED grants. Another victory comes for the startup in diverting over 75,000 bottles from the landfill, Cherry said.

“Our mission is to make refill happen,” Cherry said. “So the more refill that we can make happen, the more people that are using Fillaree soap, the better off the planet will be. Right now we have 75,000 bottles (saved); why not do 15 million bottles, 500 million bottles?”

Green products can often be criticized for being inaccessible to people with lower incomes. Full Fillaree starter packs for bath and cleaning products range from about $20 to $50 with subsequent refills from $20 to $30, with individual items available for less. Pricing is one issue that Cherry is constantly aware of in her startup’s larger vision.

“That’s something I really think about because I really hate the way that it’s the reality—a lot of green products are just so expensive,” Cherry said. “Our mission is to make refill happen so the price, if that’s a big barrier for refill happening, then that’s something that we’re working on.”

Beginning in January 2020, Fillaree is launching a condensed version of their products without water on Kickstarter with a goal of $25K. This is a cheaper version that allows customers to dilute the product in their homes by adding water to make a gel or foaming soap.

“We’ve been able to really talk to customers, get to know that there’s a few pain points that we’re able to fix with this new version,” Cherry said. “So once that happens, we’re hoping to get 5,000 subscribers, 10,000, 25,000 subscribers, so really kind of be able to reach a much larger market with this new version.”

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About Suzanne Blake 52 Articles
Suzanne is an intern reporter for GrepBeat, who focuses on profiling startups and innovation in the area. She is a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reach Suzanne at suzanne@grepbeat.com.