Many of us already have reusable coffee cups as a way to prevent the pile-up of single-use paper ones, but in recent years, there’s been an explosion of brands using a similar wash-and-reuse approach for a huge variety of everyday products. Refillable packaging can take a lot of pressure off the environment, and it’s becoming easier than ever to get involved.
The most common method for refillable products involves consumers buying an empty container to keep at home and filling it from pouches of the actual liquid or gel product that are sold separately. Once emptied, these pouches can be rinsed out and returned to the company, either in-store or through the mail, so that they can be fully sterilised, refilled, and resold. Australian company Zero Co. is a great example of this process, delivering their personal care and household cleaning products in colour-coded containers and pouches with pre-paid return envelopes. Although the process of cleaning and returning packaging might feel like a lot of extra work, conveniences like subscription delivery services and apps that identify drop off points are making the process of protecting the planet a whole lot smoother.
Sometimes, rather than a pouch, brands will provide an insert that clicks into the original container – this method is particularly popular with skincare brands such as Rihanna’s Fenty Skin and New Zealand brand Emma Lewisham because their products need more secure seals for health and safety purposes. Some companies using other variations include American start-up Blueland, who sell tablets that can be dropped into a base container full of water to create hand soap and dishwashing liquid, and The Body Shop, where you can bring back the whole aluminium bottle and use one of their in-store refill stations for yourself.
You hear 'eco' and you think it is going to be more work, it's going to be more expensive, and it's going to be less effective. And so really what we’ve set out to do is flip all these notions on their head […] making it dead simple for consumers to be environmentally responsible.
Refillables help us avoid a lot of the problems that still exist with standard recycling. Although less resource-intensive than creating entirely new containers, the recycling process still requires a lot of energy to melt down and reshape materials. Reusing a bottle or pouch in its current state as many times as possible minimises the need for this process. And as simple as it seems to just use the recycling bin, a lot of the things we think are recyclable don’t actually end up being reused. If a ‘recyclable’ item is contaminated by non-recyclable material like leftover oils or uses a mix of materials that is too complex for kerbside recycling, it often ends up in landfill anyway. With refillable products, not only is there less waste, but any pouches that become too worn to reuse will be returned to the company, who can ensure that they are properly sterilised and sent to appropriate recycling facilities.
There’s a bunch of other advantages to the refill system, too. Since you only have to buy the base container once, you can choose something that looks a little fancier than the standard single-use containers, like a nice leather case for your lipstick or a better mirror compact for your blush. Many of the brands embracing refillable packaging are also committed to sustainability in other ways, using eco-friendly formulas for their products and often making the packaging out of recycled materials – Zero Co., for example, have collected almost 6,000 kilograms of plastic from waterways to recycle back into their containers. Additionally, refill pouches are usually cheaper than buying more single-use plastic every time, saving you money in the long run.
From the consumer demand we’ve seen around the world, the growth of refill and reuse models promises to be extraordinary.
Refillable packaging helps us cut down on plastic consumption and waste production, driving us further towards a circular economy that will help us protect the planet. Although the COVID pandemic could have led to hesitation around sharing products, the refillable movement has only continued to grow in popularity, highlighting the global interest in finding new, more sustainable ways of living.
For more about the future of reuse and recycling, check out our article about European airline EasyJet, which is making cabin crew uniforms from plastic bottles.
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