The Rise Of Reuse Through Refilling

The thought first came to me as I scraped the remnants out of a pot of my favourite face cream! Making a mental note to myself to pop to the shops to get a new one as I put it in the bin at home, it struck me that the sturdy, durable plastic pot remained in the same perfect condition as when I bought it. Why couldn’t I just refill it at the shop I was going to, or at the very least have them take the pot back and reuse it?

This was a few years (and wrinkles) ago, and since then we’ve started to see the concept of refilling taking hold. While it’s still a bit of a novelty, and it tends to be concentrated in cities like London, it’s now possible to refill your plastic containers rather than binning them and replacing them with an exact replica. There’s a wave of companies developing concepts in this space, and they’re at the heart of the circular economy – that is, the idea of eliminating waste by keeping materials in use for as long as possible.

How does it work?

There are two key categories of company operating in the refills space:

  1. The brands that produce the products that allow refilling
  2. The companies that handle the logistics of refills, such as bricks and mortar stores or door-to-door collection

There are two factors crucial to the success of these businesses: price and convenience. A brief tangent: there’s a third factor that’s not yet in play, and that’s legislation to gently nudge the right behaviours by consumers. It’s on the way, following in the footsteps of the 5p (soon to be 10p) carrier bag charge, now enshrined in law in the UK and the plastic straw ban that came into force last week. The UK will hopefully soon also take the same path as Kenya, New Zealand and Taiwan, who are among a growing number of nations to commit to various measures designed to eliminate single-use plastic in the coming years.

But back to the logistics of refills. First up, price. Personally, I’m prepared to pay a premium to know that my money lands in the hands of companies that operate in a way I believe in and support. In fact, I actively seek out these companies. I can’t quantify that premium – we all have a limit – but I believe that in many industries, the price we are used to paying and the margin companies are used to aiming for, is simply wrong. Generally speaking, products have historically been made in the cheapest possible way, to provide maximum margin at a competitive price. I’m not suggesting this strategy does not make pure business sense – but what if products were made in a more thoughtful and careful way, with a broader agenda than just delivering a return for shareholders? For example, choosing production methods and business models that had less impact on the planet, even if it pushed up costs? And from my experience of designing and developing furniture and home furnishings in this way, it does indeed push up costs! Perhaps it is time for companies to accept that margins are squeezed and for consumers to adjust expectations and pay more to allow companies to operate in this way. This feels right to me.

But even with the right price, uptake isn’t likely to be successful if the offering isn’t convenient. We’re all rushed off our feet with busy lives, and there’s only so far most of us are willing (or able) to go in order to buy better. And let’s face it: picking up a bottle of washing up liquid in the supermarket is a whole lot easier than ordering a refill, cleaning out the old bottle and mixing the concentrate with water to make a new one – and paying a premium for the privilege. My reward for going to this effort is that I can feel good knowing that my actions mean one less plastic bottle is needed in the world, but being realistic, finding time to visit a physical store that wasn’t literally on my doorstep to do my refills would be a challenge for me.

Handily, many of the refill brands offer a postal option. I appreciate that this might not be as good for the environment as walking to a store and refilling in person. But of course, it might be. I know that post uses an established network happening anyway. I have no idea how the refill products make their way to bricks and mortar stores.

Blazing the eco-trail

So which circular economy companies are paving the way with refills and striking the right balance between price and convenience? One trailblazer is London-based charrli, which describes itself as “the milkman for British eco-brands”. Using e-bikes, it delivers toiletries and cleaning products such as shampoo and soap in refillable glass bottles. 

With subscription and one-off purchase options, charrli is a platform where a premium would work – because it’s also a great place to discover eco-brands you didn’t know about, which means they’re adding value beyond simply replacing like-for-like. They claim that their service could help customers “save up to 40kg of household plastic waste every year from going to landfill.”

Another newcomer to the refill scene is Spruce, which has just launched with two vegan, cruelty-free cleaning products made from safe ingredients and packaged in refillable bottles. Spruce refills weigh just 4 grams, which is 125% less than a typical cleaning bottle filled with liquid content and hugely reduces their carbon footprint compared to alternative solutions. 

The idea is that customers buy a refillable bottle just once, diluting super-concentrated refills in tap water. The refill packs can then be composted at home and will turn into fertile biomass within weeks. This compares incredibly favourably with plastic packaging, which has an average usage span of under 5 minutes but lives on for 500 years in our ecosystem. Spruce has gained traction on Kickstarter, which is already showing customer validation and raising awareness of the subject.

And the list of refill pioneers grows longer all the time. PITT BALM is the UK’s first refillable deodorant, which comes in aluminium and recycled cardboard packaging and can be refilled at participating stores. Splosh let you order refills of their personal care and cleaning products online, with a subscription service that means customers will never run out. They invite customers to send back their refill packages, which they make into new products, ensuring true circularity.

And then there are the big players – the ones with serious backing. Even those unfamiliar with eco-friendly product ranges will have heard of Ecover, which was among the first to manufacture cleaning products that are kinder to the environment. They’re currently “waging war on single-use plastic” and aiming to use recycled plastic for all their bottles by 2020.

Meanwhile, Loop, a partner of Tesco, launched in the UK in July to extensive press and influencer coverage. This platform allows consumers to shop for their favourite brands in reusable packaging, but they currently only have a limited range. This means customers would need to split their shop in two, which doesn’t quite deliver on the convenience point I talked about earlier. What’s more, Loop’s high onboarding costs of £25,000 are prohibitive to all but the most established (or well funded) brands.

This isn’t a new idea

Of course, the way I’ve been talking about all these refill pioneers, you’d think that the idea of refilling was a brand new idea. It isn’t. Remember the milkman, and those glass bottles you used to leave on the doorstep to be replaced with fresh milk each day? We had it right in the 1880s, when milk delivery in bottles began in the UK by horse-drawn cart. Before that, milk was poured from large containers into milk jugs at each house. And when technology caught up with the horse and cart in the 1930s, it was replaced by the eco-friendly electric van. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve lost our way. Surely it shouldn’t take too much to get ourselves back on track again?

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