Today is World Refill Day, a global day of action aimed at preventing plastic pollution and reducing waste. Now in its third year, this campaign aims to accelerate the transition away from single-use plastic and towards a circular future where reuse and refill are the norm. But what are the benefits and drawbacks of refillable packaging for FMCG businesses? Charles Haverfield, CEO of US Packaging & Wrapping, tells us more.
Brands on a global scale are seeking to drive down virgin plastic production and hit ESG targets, with refillable packaging growing in popularity as a sustainable solution.
However, research shows that 66% of consumers believe retailers aren’t doing enough to provide affordable refillable or packaging-free options.
With World Refill Day now in full swing, what are the pros and cons of refillable models and how are brands navigating the challenges of refillable packaging in the food and drinks market?
While in-store refillable products can enrich relationships between consumers and brands, there are many challenges retailers face.
Refilling large containers at in-store refill stations may be the most sustainable solution in terms of reducing packaging waste and greenhouse emissions, but only if consumers actually use them.
According to Trivium Packaging’s Global Buying Green Report 2022, 74% of consumers may claim to be open to changing behaviours in favour of adopting refillable packaging, however, there is often an intention-action gap. Just because consumers say they want to proactively engage with reusables doesn’t mean they will.
This could be partly due to confusing or inconvenient processes across different brands. To limit this intention-action gap, there needs to be more collaboration between retailers and brands for a more consistent approach.
The UK’s Refill Coalition is one such alliance aiming to bring together grocery retailers to develop an innovative refill system that sets an industry standard. It has partnered with some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets including Waitrose, Ocado and, most recently, Aldi.
However, despite initial interest from the likes of M&S and Morrisons during the coalition’s conception, last month saw the two retailers exit the alliance. M&S CEO Stuart Machin confirmed this was due to a lack of shopper appetite and operational difficulties.
It’s clear that more education is needed to ensure greater consumer uptake of in-store refillables and make this financially viable to retailers, and ultimately enable brands to deliver on sustainability, traceability and supply chain efficiency.
Pre-filled refillable products are currently one of the most popular solutions for FMCG brands. Instead of customers manually refilling products in stores or on the go, pre-fills are conveniently available to purchase and allow users to replenish products at home without discarding the entire container.
However, while pre-fills may help reduce waste for the primary container, customers must still rely on packaging to transport their goods home. A secondary container that is not designed to be reused would negate the circular nature of refillable packaging and would be inevitably more harmful to the environment.
In response to this, Loop partnered with UK supermarket Tesco last year to trial its refillable product system. Consumers could purchase pre-packed items in Loop containers, which were returned to Tesco stores after use. The trial aimed to make purchasing refillable products as easy as buying those in single-use packaging.
While the trial met its customer participation quota of 80,000 products purchased over two years, the trial was ultimately unsuccessful. From its own findings, Tesco revealed consumers were not ready to change behaviours. A key flaw in the trial was the responsibility put on consumers to return the containers in person.
According to a poll from environmental charity Hubbub, this could prove to deter consumers, with 26% of respondents concerned over forgetting to return containers.
On-the-go refill solutions may provide a more convenient solution to in-store refills. Refillable vending machines, for example, have been gaining traction globally as more brands experiment with refillable products outside of a store setting.
This is something Nestle has been trialling in Indonesia with its latest pilot scheme to reduce disposable packaging. Using the vending machines, customers can easily refill their stock of Milo and Koko Krunch cereals into their own containers, or purchase containers at the vending machine.
No packaging can create greater risks of product contamination and hygiene however, the machines are designed to withstand changing climates and ensure product freshness across the supply chain.
The machines are also fitted with QR codes that display product information such as ingredients and shelf life in lieu of packaging.
Another brand exploring the role of QR codes for vending machines as an on-the-go solution to refillable packaging is Kadeya, a company that seeks to offer refillable water bottles that are returned to the vending machine.
Customers scan a QR code on the machine which will dispense the pre-filled, chilled glass bottle of filtered water. Once drank, customers are expected to return the used water bottle to any station to be cleansed, sanitized and refilled for the next customer.
Since customers must create an account with Kadeya to use the machines, each bottle is accounted for, and the company can track how quickly the bottles are returned to the machines to ensure stock levels are well-managed.
Refillable packaging is touted as a win for F&B companies looking to both reduce packaging waste and build consumer loyalty. But this packaging comes with its own challenges and brands are still figuring out how to navigate the waters. Refillables could still be the future of retail, though it will take time, as with any mass impact changes.
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