The Refill Coalition uncovered: UK retailers pioneer scalable reusable packaging system
15 Mar 2022 --- The Refill Coalition has brought together leading UK retailers to pioneer scalable refill solutions, including an “industry-first” bulk home delivery model. We speak to Catherine Conway, founder and director of Unpackaged, the refill experts behind the coalition, to understand how a scalable, end-to-end solution can be achieved.
The coalition members, including retailers M&S, Morrisons, Ocado and Waitrose & Partners and supply chain solutions company CHEP, have made “significant investments” in the scheme and plan to test the system live in stores and online later this year.
They share a belief that a successful reusable packaging system can be pivotal in reducing what Greenpeace has estimated as the 56.5 billion units of single-use plastic packaging sold annually in the UK.
Conway tells PackagingInsights some retailers have introduced refill stations already, but an end-to-end solution is needed to achieve scale, which is why industry-wide collaboration is crucial.
“Currently, if retailers or brands want to implement refills in-store, they have to manage it themselves – manually, with store staff washing, cleaning and refilling the dispensers themselves. This [system] is expensive, inefficient (small scale washing) and means refills will never scale in mainstream retail,” she explains.
“An end-to-end solution means that the manufacturer (own-brand or brand) would fill straight into a reusable bulk vessel, which would come through to store, be slotted into a fixture, shopped from and emptied.”
“The empty vessel would be sent back through the supply chain, cleaned and dried by a logistics partner and returned empty (and hygienically clean) to the manufacturer ready for filling again. The trial will be testing the whole end-to-end solution through the partners in The Refill Coalition. Think of it as the beer keg v2.0.”
The coalition’s solution will “reimagine” how food staples like pasta and grains and household products like home and personal care products are supplied. Unpackaged says this coalition marks the first step in developing a worldwide standard for plastic-free food distribution from the supplier to the consumer.
Conway explains that the coalition will initially focus on dry ambient grocery products and non-food liquids, but the system is modular (the supply chain vessel is decoupled from the in-store fixture and fittings) and based on open standards.
“Following the trial, we will be publishing the open standards so everyone in the industry can use the same system – meaning that a company, for example, that developed a compatible solution for milk could fit into the system and optimize it for a new category – so that flexibility is baked in.”
“However, there are going to be many different reusable and refillable solutions for different products and customer missions (for example, fresh hummus would probably be best sold ‘pre-filled’ in a reusable jar rather than dispensed in-store) – success across the industry will come from matching the right reuse/refill system to the right product and customer need.”
Coalition retailers plan to roll out refill stations across their stores and online, subject to a successful trial. Further announcements, including details of trial store locations and the online offer, will be provided later in the year.
Unpackaged sees long-term customer demand for single-use plastic-free choices in UK stores, like refill stations enabling customers to bring their own reusable containers to buy loose products.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed refillable packaging’s expansion, notes Conway. “There was definitely a dip in refill sales globally when the pandemic hit – it could have been about not wanting to touch surfaces or wanting to get in and out of shops quickly – unfortunately, there is no direct consumer research from that time to really understand it,” she says.
“We’ve seen most refills in retailers have bounced back since restrictions started lifting. There has been significant research showing that (even among consumers most financially hit by the pandemic) there is an interest in retailers and brands delivering on their [environmental] sustainability commitments.”
“The reality is that climate change is still coming, and businesses still face a lot of incoming legislation, which will make single-use plastic packaging more costly, so they have to keep pushing forward with finding solutions.”
According to Innova Market Insights, 48% of UK consumers say they think reusable packaging is an environmentally sustainable packaging model, trumped only by recyclable (55%) but ahead of compostable (28%) and biodegradable (26%).
Science behind the system
The coalition insists that proving the net environmental impact of the reusable system is imperative. Life cycle analysis (LCA) modeling has been conducted at every stage of the system’s development.
“Our LCA modeling takes in the full 12 impact categories, and we have run it using multiple versions of the vessel (for example, comparing a vessel made from 100% virgin polymer to a vessel made with 30% recycled polymer),” explains Conway.
“Initial results indicate that all versions of the vessel for in-store dispensing perform better across most impact categories than the single-use cases, which has given us the confidence to keep developing it. We will be running a full LCA across the live trial.”
“We are 100% committed to proving the system’s environmental sustainability – otherwise there’s no point – that’s the whole reason we’ve designed this system.”
By Joshua Poole
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