Refill revolution

Posted by Flux on 

17 November 2020

The reuse and refill trend is one where Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) manufacturers offer consumers the opportunity to refill instead of buying newly packaged products. Smaller, independent and eco-conscious companies have been using this model for the past few years. However, larger established brands are beginning to pilot reuse-and-refill initiatives as part of their commitment towards reducing single-use plastics.

There are four types of reuse-and-refill models (some of which have already been around for a while now):

  1. Fill up containers at home using refills you buy at a shop or online (Sta-soft Fabric Softener refills by the Colgate-Palmolive Company)
  2. Dispensing machine in a shop (usually the in-house brand of a grocery store)
  3. Deposit and reward (Returning glass Coke bottles)
  4. Home delivery and collection where empty containers are returned by the consumer after use for cleaning and refilling (milkman model of the past)

In addition to the obvious benefit of reducing the amount of single-use plastics in the world, in the June 2019 publication “Reuse – Rethinking Packaging”, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation identified the untapped business potential of the reuse-and-refill model. “Globally, replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth at least $10 billion.” Refills are more cost effective both in terms of transportation and packaging. 

There is now a global consensus that “reusable packaging is a critical part of the solution to eliminate plastic pollution,” according to that Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Over 450 businesses, governments, and other organisations have committed, as part of the “New Plastics Economy Global Commitment” to a set of 2025 targets to address the problem of plastic waste and pollution. Unilever, Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive and Coca- Cola are among those that have signed up. Locally, Pick n Pay and Woolworths have joined this initiative.

Partnerships between big brands and start-ups are starting to emerge in this space. Online reusable packaging platform Loop offers durable, reusable packaging for products. Empty bottles are picked up, cleaned and refilled. Among the big brands that they stock are Procter & Gamble, Unilever and The Body Shop.

The Chilean app Algramo, whose tagline is “Pay for the product. Not the packaging” is another example of this kind of partnership. Unilever joined Algramo in a pilot project that uses RFID (radio-frequency identification) tagged reusable containers, to deliver cleaning products by electric tricycle with refill machines.

Above: Procter&Gamble’s new refillable, aluminium bottles

Consumer goods giant, Procter & Gamble, just announced its plan to launch refillable shampoo bottles in 2021. The reusable bottles will be made out of aluminium which can be refilled from new pouches. “This new packaging innovation will contribute to making the reuse of packaging irresistible, while enabling a reduction of virgin plastic as per P&G’s Ambition 2030 commitment,” says P&G’s chief sustainability officer. “It’s no longer about if or what we can do, but how quickly we can do it – the window is now for embracing new sustainable lifestyles.”

Above: Unilever’s refill kiosks at Asda store in Leeds

UK supermarket chain, Asda, just opened a prototype sustainability store in Leeds where customers can refill their own containers. It stocks brands like Kellogg’s, Radox and Heinz as well as its own-label products. To encourage customers to shop sustainably, this trial will be used to “test and learn which elements of the new supermarket appeal most to customers and can be developed at scale to be potentially rolled out to more sites in 2021.” Covid-19 has slowed down this movement but recent developments such as Asda’s eco-conscious store and the P&G announcement suggests that it is gaining momentum again. 

In South Africa, we are not unfamiliar with plastic refill pouches for cosmetic and cleaning products, usually for house brand items. We’ve also become accustomed to reusing water bottles and coffee cups.  However, the overwhelming majority of consumer products are made using single-use plastics. 

When big brands start to adopt a trend, it’s likely that the trend is here to stay and will become mainstream. For this to be successful, consumers will need to shift their perceptions of shopping and consuming. Awareness of the importance of a circular economy and the detrimental effect on the planet of plastic waste is growing, and the pressure on CPG manufacturers is mounting. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 2% of the world’s CPG products from the large manufacturers come in reusable packaging. We have just scratched the surface and a grocery ecosystem that is sustainable will play an important part in reducing the planet’s plastic waste. 

How can you and your organisation become part of the reuse-and-refill movement?

By Faeeza Khan

Image credit: Procter & Gamble AND AND Unilever

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