waitrose unpacked refill station customer

Those of us with a passion for packaging reduction are always disappointed when projects tackling the problem are wound up, as we saw with Asda closing its refill trials in four stores.

Asda’s work with Wrap on consumer uptake, and with IGD/Hubbub on optimal messaging around refills, were invaluable contributions in understanding how consumers behave in new refill environments.

In-store refill shopping already works in many independent zero-waste stores and can work in large retailers, but only if done differently.

Most independent stores have a higher staffing ratio that enables the manual cleaning and refilling of the bulk dispensers - and we don’t underestimate how much work it is for them!

Many of us have tried to transpose the independent model into larger retail formats, but it doesn’t work – adding cost, complexity and increased space requirements. Asda’s reasons for exiting the refill trials highlighted these known operational and commercial issues, as well as current consumer barriers.

IGD is correct that we need a “major rethink” on how refillable solutions could be scaled across the UK. But we don’t need to look to other countries – a leading global solution has been developed in the UK by The Refill Coalition and is being trialled by Aldi, showing strong results.

The solution delivers in-store refills with an operational cost reduction of over 80% by removing the cleaning and refilling from store. For the trial, logistics experts CHEP are collecting the reusable vessels that power the dispensers for cleaning upstream, ready for refilling by suppliers.

Whilst it’s easy for critics to jump on the perceived failures of individual reuse & refill trials, we shouldn’t see this as a major blow to the industry’s war on plastic – this is the necessary, often rocky, path of innovation.

For reuse & refill to work at scale, brands and retailers must collaborate in a similar way to how pharmaceutical companies worked together on Covid vaccines. They can maintain their individual brands but in the spirit of a shared mission. Individuality must give way to a level of standardisation and the sharing of assets.

Initially consumers baulked when retailers removed single-use plastic multipacks or added self-service checkouts. Consumers will come around to reuse & refill – we just need to help them change their habits by offering the best solutions.

This innovation is hard, but essential if we’re going to reduce the estimated 90 billion items of single-use plastic packaging sold annually by UK grocers. The government’s Efra Committee report agreed, stating “increasing the uptake of reusable packaging is essential for reducing the total amount of packaging consumed in the UK”. This is the direction of travel for any future legislation, so industry needs to get on board now.

Many businesses are making great strides in the transition to a circular economy for packaging, in an environment overwhelmingly stacked in favour of single-use. If the negative externalities of single-use plastic packaging – including immense fossil fuel subsidies that trickle down the supply chain into plastics – were priced into the equation, single-use would not seem so cheap, convenient or appealing to businesses or consumers.

So, bravo to all of those independent zero-waste shops, large retailers and brands who, despite a lack of legislation, are choosing to lead and offer us all more sustainable options. Keep up the good work – may you fail fast, learn quickly, and keep sharing your findings so we can all improve.