You can’t turn the page of a packaging magazine at the moment without reading about the latest developments in eco-conscious packaging. From suppliers switching to recyclable materials to the rise of reuse, it’s clear that going green is the new black.
But just as this trend is changing our relationship with packaging, could it also change something more fundamental – the way we shop itself?
Today’s consumers are crying out for a solution to the plague of single-use plastic packaging – after all, they are often the ones left to deal with it. No one wants to be left wondering what bin they need to put their latest purchase’s container in or struggling to remember what can be recycled and what can’t.
Refillable packaging models provide an answer to this complexity. Encouraging consumers to buy unpackaged goods like pasta or laundry liquid using refillable containers takes single-use plastic out of the equation, simplifying the packaging experience for consumers and enabling brands to take action on the environment.
The appetite for refill shopping is clearly high. Research shows most people are willing to change their long-established shopping habits. Despite having grown up in a single-use packaging world, between 67% and 85% of us say we would try refilling if it was more widely available in supermarkets. Almost three-quarters (73%) would be willing to try refilling for their online purchases.
Can this model make a difference? According to Greenpeace data, UK households throw away nearly 100 billion items of plastic packaging each year, most of which is food and drink packaging. Every house refilling just one item a week would take more than 1.4 billion single-use packaging items out of commission every year.
Catherine Conway, Director at Go Unpackaged, certainly believes that refill models are the future – but acknowledges that achieving this will take a concerted effort from the packaging industry to shift away from the single-use model that has served it for so long.
“We have optimised an entire supply chain around single-use plastic packaging, whether it's consumer-facing or transit packaging,” she told Packaging Innovations & Empack ahead of her presentation at the event next February. “And it's just very, very hard to shift at a systemic level towards what we know needs to happen. However, I think regulation is going to start forcing business’s hands.
“We need a seismic shift towards reuse and refill if we're to stem the tide of the amount of single use packaging waste going out into the world. It's not a solution for everything but there are certain contexts where this reuse and refill packaging actually thrives and makes a difference.”
For refill models to spread, the cost to businesses must first be reduced.
There remains a significant concern in the industry over the perceived high investment and operational cost of switching to a refillable packaging model – particularly regarding the impact on SMEs. A number of other high-profile trials in recent years have led to mixed success, with results often attributed to customer willingness and financial performance.
Research from Zero Waste Europe has shown that this expense need not be the case. A study published in July has demonstrated that reusable packaging is economically viable and can provide an alternative to single use when certain conditions are met, such as high return rates, average use cycles, and retention time.
The more circuits can be got out of a refillable package, the better value it will offer. This means it may need to be made from more durable materials that can stand up to the rigours of modern supply chains. Deposit schemes can incentivise customer returns, and at the end of its lifespan, any material that can be broken down and reprocessed into further packaging offers even greater benefits to brands’ bottom lines and the planet alike.
Alternatively, costs could be reduced by standardising the kind of refillable packaging used to simplify supply chains.
In October, the UK Refill Coalition launched a pilot study with Aldi UK and Ocado Retail at an Aldi store in Solihull. The project led to the creation of a reusable bulk vessel to deliver refills for certain foods and household products, taking single-use plastic out of the equation when moving goods between suppliers and customers.
This pilot, supported by supply chain solutions company CHEP, sees a refill station implanted in stores for dry goods and non-food liquids that enables retailers to sell refill products at a cheaper price than pre-packaged equivalents. Current bulk dispensers will be replaced with reusable containers that can be filled and shipped with products, and customers are encouraged to use their own refillable packaging at the station.
This model is being operated alongside an e-commerce system where a smaller vessel can be pre-filled and shipped to customers with their orders and returned to the delivery driver after use. Subject to success, the UK Refill Coalition hopes to roll this out further, as it is designed to be used by any supplier or retailer, enabling accessible refills in stores across the UK.
“We think that this is really the beginning of the journey for consumers because this is actually a system that can scale, whereas the systems that were developed before were very manual, very labour intensive and added a lot of cost into the model and that's why they weren't scaling,” said Conway, who helped convene the UK Refill Coalition. “So, the hope is that by sorting out the supply and the logistics it will actually bring it in at the same cost, if not cheaper, than the single use packaged alternative.”
Catherine will be speaking in more detail about refillable packaging at Packaging Innovations & Empack, the must-attend event for packaging professionals in 2024. To book your place and find out more about the latest innovations taking the sector by storm, go to www.packagingbirmingham.com/