Have consumers had their fill of refillable packaging?

Refillable packaging seemed to be taking a step forward with the announcement of a further collaboration between supermarkets in the UK and brand owners a few weeks ago. France is preparing to mandate supermarkets to devote space to refill stations. Suppliers are launching new refillable containers to respond to a growing demand. But then came the news that independent refill shops are closing all over the UK. So, what is the future for refillable packaging? 

Refillable packaging is best suited to non-perishable goods such as dry foods and household or personal care products. This leaves out many types of food, drinks and ready meals. But the hope was always that once consumers got used to refilling their containers for the non-perishable part of their shopping, they would go on to purchase the rest at local shops, using their own plastic boxes to carry home the purchases.  But, according to the owners of the refill shops forced to close, customers are now losing interest in the zero-waste ideology and opting for the convenience of supermarket home delivery as their lives get busier after the pandemic. 

Unilever is trying to help by taking some of the pain out of the refilling process.  They are  trialling a “return on the go” concept for some household brands including Persil and Radox. Shoppers can pick up a pre-filled stainless-steel bottle from stores and return it once used, for cleaning and refilling. The bottles are nicely designed and carry the product branding. This return and refill concept could also be compatible with home delivery. Consumers could hand back the empty pack in return for a filled one. Unilever partners with Beauty Kitchen who can track the lifecycle of the bottle and the number of times it has been used. 

Metal is a good choice for a refillable container, as it retains more of its appeal with age than rigid plastic. And using metal will help companies to fulfil their commitments to use less virgin plastic. Equally importantly, these bottles looks nice on the shelves and in the home. No brand owner wants their product to end up in some tatty old container that the customer found at the back of their cupboard. 

We are all getting used to seeing more metal containers, particularly aluminium cans for beverages and aerosols for personal care products. Ball has also launched Infinity aluminium bottles, which are refillable and recyclable. The widespread infrastructure for recycling of aluminium is an advantage. With more and more producers trying to buy recycled aluminium, there is also a market pull. A recent study commissioned by the International Aluminium Institute (IAI) into the recycling of aluminium, glass and PET beverage containers found that more glass and plastic bottles end up in landfills than aluminium cans. Also, losses in the recycling system are three times higher for PET and glass bottles than for aluminium cans. 

While recyclability is a key requirement, the holy grail is refill and reuse. It is still too early to say if one of the models under trial for refillable packaging will become popular with the public.  As Unilever put it last year, ‘unlocking the full potential of the reuse economy would require a significant shift in how people shop.' It would entail turning the clock back to habits that were the norm before the rise of the supermarket. The recent closures of independent refill shops in the UK is a setback for the widespread adoption of reusable packaging for everyday food shopping.  For those of us old enough to remember the regular ritual of queueing up in the butcher’s, the baker's and the grocer’s with our parents, it is not surprising news.

Published: 1 April 22

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