Plastic packaging waste presents a critical global problem. A recent report
written for Plastic Overshoot Day 2023 forecasts that 159m tonnes of plastic waste will be created across the world in 2023 and, of this, 43% will be mismanaged at the end-of-life stage, resulting in nearly 70m additional tonnes of plastic unleashed upon the natural world. With policymakers beginning to shape tighter regulations to pave the road towards circularity, such as the EU’s proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations (PPWR), supply chain players are looking to slash plastic-use.
Developing reuse and refill technologies have continually been cited as key circular economy drivers, and among the potential at-scale solutions to the plastic problem. However, results from the many trials in recent years have been decidedly mixed. Convenience, cost and communication seem to be key sticking points – but new studies, initiatives and trials persist, suggesting that with some time and fine-tuning, retailers and supply-chain partners, along with willing consumers, can get it right.
But what are the options for refill and reuse? What has – and hasn’t – worked? And what is needed for scale?
Innovation in store
Big retailers are clearly going to be central to developing any significant impacts from reuse and refill models, and have been host to a wave of innovation in recent years, through pilots and trials. For the most part, supermarkets and retailers are involved in “on the go” reuse and refill, in which consumers bring their own containers, or return empty ones, to be refilled with dried foods or products on the shop floor.
Perhaps the most obvious refill solution is for consumers to fill up re-usable containers in store. Several supermarkets across Europe have trialled packaging-free stores with this feature in recent years.
Aldi launched its own
at a UK location in 2021. The trial allowed consumers to fill up on four household staples – basmati rice, brown rice, penne pasta and wholewheat fusilli – by weight, in free recycled (and recyclable) paper bags provided by Aldi. These staples were sold at a cheaper price point than their packaged equivalents.
The supermarket stated that extending the initiative UK wide could save 130 tonnes of plastic each year, contributing to its pledge to halve the volume of its plastic packaging by 2025, and removing a further 74,000 tonnes of plastic from circulation. However, the trial was ended in August 2022 without clear expansion plans, with Aldi “pausing to reflect on findings and insights”.
UK retailer Waitrose’s Unpacked initiative, also employing manual refill, appears to have been more successful. The programme was launched in 2019 at the supermarket’s Botley Road store in Oxford. Customers could either bring their own reusable containers or buy one in store, in order to stock up on loose products such as grains, cereals, coffee and washing up liquid. The steps included weighing and labelling a chosen container, filling it with produce, before weighing and relabelling it.
The initiative was expanded to three additional Oxfordshire stores during the trial period, with all four stores still using the system. Moreover, Waitrose has since moved from concentrating refill options in a designated zone, to integrating them throughout the stores with pre-packaged versions of the same products.
“Waitrose Unpacked requires a fundamental change in shopping behaviour that has been ingrained for years,” Waitrose & Partners’ executive director James Bailey said at the time
, adding that “this next phase will help us to understand if we can make refillables a routine part of customers’ shopping trips that would allow us to roll out Unpacked further in the future.”
A variation on the in-store refill, Lidl launched an initial 6-month trial of the UK’s first smart laundry detergent refill station at two UK stores in 2022 – subsequently expanding to a third. The station consists of an automated, touchscreen, liquid refill machine
, found in-store, in the laundry detergent section.
Shoppers can purchase a 100% recyclable refill bottle or pouch, filled with a choice of Lidl’s four own brand laundry detergents, for the same price as a standard single-use bottle. Any future refills then come with a 20p discount, compared with single-use alternatives. Refill bottles, designed in partnership with Chilean start-up Algramo, contain a chip that the fully-automated refill machines scan to register and refill them.
The refill machines are currently only available in the three trial stores in the UK – at Kingswinford, Lichfield and Swadlincote – however Lidl remains committed to its goal to make 100% of own brand packaging widely recyclable, reusable or refillable by 2025.
Another refill/reuse approach is to sell prefilled reusable containers in store. In the UK, Tesco, the Co-op, and Morrisons have trialled this model in recent years.
Tesco launched its ten-store trial
with global reuse platform Loop
in 2021. Consumers could buy a range of products in reusable packaging through a deposit system. They could then return containers to be cleaned and refilled. Prefilled reusable packaging was on sale for 53 branded lines including Persil detergent, Coca-Cola drinks and Tetley tea bags, and 35 own-brand products, including food staples, beverages and personal products such as shampoo.
Whilst Tesco stated that it had met its customer participation targets by the end of the trial in June 2022, a source from a participating brand revealed that
“sales were poor and we were left high and dry with stock”. The “complex shopping process” had needed “much more education of consumers”.
Tesco’s own survey found that whilst it was popular with “eco-conscious shoppers who are likely to adapt their day-to-day habits based on their environmental values”, there was a lack of understanding
around the benefits of reuse over recycling. An analysis by Hubbub and Bunzl
suggests that upfront cost from deposits on reuse, employed as a motivator to return packaging for reuse, was another barrier to uptake.
Back to glass
In 2021, Morrisons took a slightly simpler approach, in a smaller trial in partnership with dairy farmers, designed to bring back long-life glass milk bottles across 11 trial stores. The initiative involved local dairy farms filling and delivering bottles of milk directly to local stores – reducing CO2 emissions in the process. Consumers then could purchase the milk, with an initial 90p deposit on each bottle, and return them to the store for collection and sanitation after use. The approach meant that Morrisons could cut 40,000 plastic bottles from the trial stores each year.
The Co-op has worked in the UK with consumer goods giant Unilever via the “Return on the go” initiative. Offering a range of Unilever brands and products in refillable stainless-steel bottles, the Co-op’s aim was to test different models, store formats and locations across the UK and to gauge customer response, what works best and possible adaptations and change that would work better. However as for other trials, expecting instant success is unrealistic. Commenting on the initiative, Unilever UK and Ireland’s general manager and executive vice-president Sebastian Munden admitted that“there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for reuse and refill”.
Standards for success
For real consumer convenience, standardised reuse and refill solutions offer some interesting potential. Creating a standardised solution is the goal of the Refill Coalition
, a UK body convened by Unpackaged in 2020. The idea for the coalition is to work with multiple retailers – currently including Aldi, Ocado and Waitrose – along with suppliers, to design and scale a standardised refill dispenser and end-to-end process.
However, scale has been slow, and implementation has been pushed back consistently. Aldi joined the coalition in 2023, but both Morrisons and Marks & Spencer had both left. Marks & Spencer CEO Stuart Machin told the Grocer that “customers just weren’t responding” and that the machines “were very hard to manage”. Machin then said that the company will be focusing “more on the things that really matter to customers, which is reducing our plastic in the main”.
However, the Refill Coalition is aiming to begin trials both in-store and online during 2023, with a trial supported by Innovate UK’s smart sustainable plastic packaging fund.
What’s needed for scale?
It’s becoming clear that to really engage consumers and drive forward reuse and refill models’ brands and retailers should consider customer convenience, communicating the benefits of the approach and ensuring that they are cost positive for consumers.
In terms of convenience
, whilst survey results
show that up to 94% of consumers in the UK are more likely to invest in refills rather than buying new products in store if available, and 89% are likely to buy a product because its packaging can be reused, the mixed results of trials suggest that this is not translating in practice.
Ultimately, for the vast majority of shoppers to integrate reuse and refill into their routines, it must be convenient for them. In-store, refill apparatus should be easy, simple and convenient to use. This also goes for the process of returning used packaging to be cleaned and refilled.
A common theme from the trials has been the confusion and hesitancy with which they’ve been met by consumers. From failing to understand the necessity of refill over recycled material, to feeling concerned about getting the apparatus ‘wrong’ and causing embarrassment, there are some social and behavioural barriers to overcome.
Retailers and partners should therefore invest time and resources into communication
, with reassuring and consistent consumer education around new refill initiatives. A WRAP study
on consumer behaviour in a refill trial with Asda and Unilever found that “the most successful interventions were those which stood out as different from the typical Asda branded communications”. Moreover, they stressed that “clear instructions on use of the Refill Zone can also help alleviate uncertainty”. Guidance should be step-by-step and friendly, and assistance should be on hand nearby.
Cost has acted as a barrier both for shoppers and retailers in recent years – with the average shopper less willing to pay extra, and retailers catering to tighter budgets. Some refill initiatives, such as Tesco’s deposit-based prefilled packaging scheme, have asked consumers to invest in order to shop more sustainably.
However, the WRAP study found that price can actually be a strong enabler. Retailers should try where possible to find cost-parity or savings between single-use and refillable counterparts. Price can act as a further enabler when participants understand that they can save money on some refilled products;
communication is key here too, as price comparisons should be very clear and evident to shoppers.
Lower prices can also work as an incentive for consumers to make an effort to return used packaging. Indeed, Unilever research found
that nearly a third of participants said that value for money was a key reason for being likely to purchase at refill stations in the future.
Measures to help consumer adoption will not be enough to scale refill and reuse to any significant level. To take reuse and refill from supermarket trials to adoption at a systems level, ‘‘full cooperation between manufacturers, retailers, start-ups, service providers and policymakers is required’’, as Nestlé’s Jodie Roussell and Antje Shaw told Packaging Europe.
As necessary enabling conditions, they highlight factors including: legislation at the international level for each product category; investments in industrial infrastructure and facilities; review of competition laws hindering collective and pre-competitive approaches to standardised shared packaging pools; and a clear timeframe for a transition.
With these structural hurdles to jump, it’s perhaps easier to understand why retailers have been hesitant to commit to permanent changes at scale. However, with years of these trials and studies behind them, and ambitious plastic-reduction goals to chase, retailers should now look to utilise the lessons learned and implement refill options where they can work.Join us at The Future of Plastics and Packaging in Amsterdam on 3rd-4th October to discuss reuse, refill and much more over two packed conference days. Click here for registration details.