Reusable packaging revival: Major FMCGs pursue refill models for circular economy gains
26 Apr 2023 --- The refillable packaging market is “still in its infancy,” Emmi Randell, head of business development at Sulapac, tells PackagingInsights, even though many packaging industry insiders see it as an ecological solution to single-use packaging waste and a way to support the plastics circular economy.
Meanwhile, Pablo Costa, Unilever’s global vice president of packaging, tells us that “a global revolution toward refillable and reusable packaging could be a game-changer in reducing the use of virgin plastic.”
From packaging producers to food brands and technology suppliers, the packaging industry is working toward reusable solutions to reduce waste and encourage a shift away from single-use consumption.
“There is increasing pressure on the FMCG industry in terms of packaging, with higher material prices, responsible consumption demands and legislation. All these factors are pushing toward more [environmentally] sustainable forms of packaging,” adds Ivana Sobolíková, responsible for impact strategy and investor relations at Miwa.
Big company solutions
Unilever has been trialing various reuse-refill models across its broad portfolio since 2018. But Costa highlights there is no “no one-size-fits-all solution” for reusable packaging.
“Different product categories work better on-the-go than at home and vice versa. Success depends on tailoring solutions accordingly, removing barriers to entry and keeping systems as simple as possible to increase the likelihood of consumers making new, lasting habits,” he explains.
In Germany, Nestlé is conducting the first practical test of its reusable stainless steel containers in retail, “Anita in Steel,” with start-up Circolution. The food giant is testing the entire technical ecosystem behind the reusable cycle and the consumer approach in the current trial.
Circolution plans to expand the test in the third quarter of 2023. In this second phase, Nestlé will look closer at consumer acceptance of the refillable packaging model.
“We develop reuse and refill systems as part of our packaging strategy, which includes less packaging, better packaging and better systems. We have run over 20 pilots in 12 countries and commercially provide products with external partners and key customers in the US, Latin America, Europe and Southeast Asia,” a Nestlé spokesperson tells PackagingInsights.
Additionally, in the grocery store space, technology solutions provider Miwa will continue providing refillable solutions to supermarkets.
“This year, we are mainly focusing on widening the range of products that can be sold through Miwa. To our latest version, we have added features such as automatic vibration, which help bigger and shaped products to be dosed smoothly. We are also developing a solution for liquid products and we plan to conduct the first pilot test this year,” says Sobolíková.
Looking to the future, David Matamala, marketing and communications manager at Faca Packaging, predicts that the changes in European legislation will be significant across all packaging, including refillable options. To keep up with the reusable shift, Faca Packaging has included refill systems in its entire range of jars and dispensers.
“The value chain of the packaging sector is trying to adapt and currently, some packaging manufacturers already offer a range of solutions in terms of [environmental] sustainability and eco-design,” he says.
“The refill option is one of the current solutions that help reduce the use of natural resources and positively impact the environment. The inclusion of refill stations in large supermarkets, the increase of new refill stores in cities and the adoption of refill business models by major players are expected to drive growth in the future.”
Sulapac’s Randell adds that reusable containers are one of the most popular types of refillable packaging. She recommends that, when choosing the material for reusable containers, businesses should select an alternative that leaves no permanent microplastics or toxic load behind.
“When assessing the reuse concept’s impact, negative aspects also arise. For example, the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive has increased the usage of conventional plastic, as restaurants have been forced to replace lightweight single-use items with heavy-duty ‘reusable’ ones which, in reality, are soon thrown away,” she explains.
The origin of raw materials, recyclability and the risk of microplastic pollution should be carefully considered also in the case of reusable packaging and goods.
“Guaranteeing that the packaging is made of a material that is sustainable, circular and safe for people and the planet should also be the number one priority when developing the regulation around reusable packaging,” continues Randell.
Reusable packaging often ends up back in waste streams rather than its intended purpose. A reason for discarding reusable packaging is that consumers have not adapted to the model yet and habits do not change quickly.
Refill in cosmetics
Refill packaging allows for material reduction due to new packaging not needing to be provided for each product use.
Matamala from Faca Packaging explains that refillable options allow material reuse because replacements are inserted into external containers, such as jars and bottles. For example, refillable beauty products are only sent out as a refill, not an entire compact.
“It aids in recycling since it allows for the separation of the container into various components, which are typically made of different materials, and assists in the subsequent processes of separation, sorting and processing of the different materials,” he says.
Sulapac says it supports brands in all three areas, providing bio-based and biodegradable materials made with recycled content, including options suitable for reuse. An example of one of the latter is the lifetime-use lip balm by Above & Beyond, in which both the reusable cases and the refill capsules are made of Sulapac materials.
Traceability for sustainability
One issue that can arise with F&B reusable packaging options is the traceability of the product being refilled. For example, when a food item is refilled into a container, the customer and producer may not have as easy access to an expiration date that would typically be printed on single-use packaging.
“If designed and managed well, these solutions are environmentally sustainable, which means packaging should be standardized and ready to scale up, and provide traceability,” explains Sobolíková,
Traceability allows Miwa to obtain product and packaging information. Properties of products, such as expiration dates, amounts or batch numbers, can be monitored remotely.
However, the company is witnessing a problem in traditional bulk sales with mixed batches.
“Miwa keeps product safety the same way single-use packaging doe. Traceability of packaging enables optimizing transport distances and reverse logistics, monitoring and managing amount of uses, material flows and more,” says Sobolíková.
Scalable collaborative solutions
Meanwhile, Costa at Unilever stresses that collaboration is a vital ingredient to make reuse and refill packaging economical at scale. Both consumers and industry members need to “buy in” across the value chain, including retailers, manufacturers, delivery services, policymakers and civil society organizations.
Unilever has moved beyond its initial “test and learn” approach. Now, the company is working with partners, sharing learnings and focusing its efforts on supporting an industry-wide shift toward scaled reusable and refillable packaging models.
“We are working with the World Economic Forum’s Consumers Beyond Waste initiative, which – alongside a coalition of leading private and public stakeholders – aims to build a harmonized measurement and reporting framework for businesses to track progress toward reusable models of consumption. This is required to support strategy and well-drafted regulation in the long term,” says Costa.
Nestlé is also collaborating with the World Economic Forum initiative and others to create a smoother transition in the packaging industry to reusable solutions.
“Reuse and refill at scale requires cooperation between manufacturers, retailers, policymakers and regulators to drive the necessary changes at a systems level,” the company tells us.
“We have also learned that no company can build this system alone and we know there is more work to do with retail and supply chain partners.”
Innova Market Insights flagged “Reusable revival” as a top packaging trend for 2023.
By Sabine Waldeck
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