Is now the time to talk about the refill revolution?
Reusable packaging has been largely absent from sustainability discourse – and it’s time for a change
Is 2023 the year the refill revolution finally arrives?
While most packaging industry discussions focus on removing plastic from the supply chain and improving recyclability, refillable packaging has remained curiously low-profile in the swirling sustainability discourse.
It is puzzling on the face of it. In theory, reusable primary or secondary packaging could present the optimal waste reduction strategy. The benefits are clear – businesses reuse the same packaging again and again, multiplying the value of each pack by several orders of magnitude before its life cycle eventually ends. In an ideal world, the packs could be made to be recyclable at the end of this process, which only strengthens their sustainable value proposition.
Of course, we do not live in an ideal world, and so there are some hurdles that a refillable packaging solution needs to overcome to prove itself viable. However, not only are there recent signs that these hurdles can be overcome, but new regulatory shifts around the world mean there are new incentives to do so. In other words, the refill revolution could finally be upon us.
The challenges of change
Paul Jenkins of ThePackHub, which tracks the latest innovations in packaging, cited a near-doubling in the number of refillable or reusable projects over the last year. One of these innovations could easily lead to the breakthrough that opens the door to a wave of viable, scalable reusable solutions.
The issue of scalability is arguably key to the widespread adoption of refillable packaging. The key is to develop solutions with a suitably low short-term economic and environmental impact; low enough that they can be more easily cleared by the long-term reusability of each pack. McKinsey estimates that to achieve an ultimate reduction in emissions, a reusable takeaway food pack may need to go through around 200 usage cycles. While this number does vary depending on application, it speaks to the fact that refillable packaging does need to be made to be extremely durable and high-quality.
This comes with a financial cost, one that may be exacerbated by the need to invest in a new operating model that can clean and maintain packaging in addition to dispatching and receiving it.
The demand exists… now for the supply
It is understandable why these costs may have cooled some businesses’ early enthusiasm for the refill revolution, particularly in the current economic environment. But the consumer appetite for it has never really gone away – and in fact, may only be changing as demographics continue to shift.
Trivium Packaging’s 2022 Global Buying Green Report found that 74% of consumers would be interested in buying products that come in refillable packaging. Meanwhile, more than half of Gen Z consumers are influenced by packaging sustainability according to a report from Duo, which found that 56% of the youngest consumers would be less likely to buy from a retailer again if they did not feel its packaging was sustainable.
This matters, as Gen Z are on the cusp of being the world’s foremost spending superpower. Study after study shows that they are the most eco-conscious generation that has ever lived and, as the first ‘digital natives’, find it easy to use the internet to check the provenance of any sustainability claims.
This is already translating into a dramatic rise in sales for reusable water bottles, a rise driven in large part by Gen Z (69% of Gen Z purchased a water bottle in the past year). These consumers are already taking the reusable packaging debate into their own hands and putting their money where their mouths are. If any demographic will support businesses who innovate and invest in new, returnable packaging operations, even taking advantage of smart tracking and other Industry 4.0-ready features, it is this one.
Building structures to support the revolution
When coupled with increasing legislative shifts designed to limit our collective reliance on single-use packaging, particularly single-use plastics, businesses in the near future may have no choice but to join the refill revolution – and failing to act early enough means they may be left behind.
While Scotland’s deposit return scheme seems to be continually delayed, it does indicate that lawmakers in the UK are looking for ways to incentivise consumers to recycle more packaging, with the structures being built that could support reusable packaging at scale.
Many lawmakers outside of the UK have proven this is viable. Germany, Denmark, Australia, and several large US states including California are among the large economies that currently operate deposit return schemes of varying size and scope. And, if a system of collection points can be set up for PET bottles, then why not returnable mailer bags, boxes, and other eCommerce packaging?
It paints a clear picture for businesses. Consumers are motivated. Legislators are demanding it. All that remains is for businesses to innovate and invest in the refillable packaging solutions necessary to supply this burgeoning revolution.