Growing concern about the environmental impact of plastic packaging is driving innovations in re-usable and refill concepts among retailers and FMCG brands.
The pressure is mounting on brands and retailers to address the issue of single-use packaging and the glut of waste it creates, with consumers, environmental organisations and new legislation calling for immediate action.
From 2022, the UK government is introducing a plastic packaging tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. The EU has also agreed to enforce new laws to cut single-plastics and plastic pollution across the union.
‘Citizens across Europe want to see an end to our throwaway culture and politicians have taken the first step,’ says Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. ‘The time is ripe to transition away from single-use plastics to reusables.’
Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the excess packaging and plastic associated with shopping. In the UK, 46% say they feel guilty about the amount of plastic they use, while 82% are actively trying to reduce the amount they throw away, according to YouGov. The same survey finds that fresh fruit and vegetables, household and cleaning products, homeware and personal care products are the main categories in which shoppers are looking to reduce purchases packaged in plastic.
In response, a growing number of retailers are embracing packaging-free initiatives – from dedicated aisles in supermarkets to entire stores. ‘Retailers recognise how important it is to tackle plastic pollution, removing it where possible and ensuring all packaging is recyclable,’ says Peter Andrews, head of sustainability policy at the British Retail Consortium.
Online platform Useless, for example, is a directory for zero-waste stores. Created by ethical agency Nice and Serious, the Useless website helps shoppers find London-based retailers offering loose or unpackaged produce, alongside refill services for home cleaning products and toiletries.
Retailers recognise how important it is to tackle plastic pollution, removing it where possible and ensuring all packaging is recyclable.
Large grocers are also starting to follow suit. UK supermarket group Waitrose is testing its new Unpacked concept at its Botley Road shop in Oxford, featuring a dedicated refill zone, a frozen ‘pick and mix’ section, and a borrow-a-box scheme. The refill zone includes dispensers for pasta, rice, coffee and washing up liquid, loose fruit and vegetables, as well as a variety of beers and wines on tap.
Earlier in 2019, cosmetics retailer Lush opened its Naked store in Manchester, exclusively selling plastic-free products and packaging alternatives such as solid shampoo and conditioner bars, deodorant bars, and bath soaks and toothpaste without wrappings or bottles. Exploring how technology can replace traditional packaging, the brand is encouraging shoppers to download the Lush Labs app, which can be used to scan unpackaged products to get instant information about ingredients, use and pricing on their smartphones.
Beyond the store, direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies are laying the groundwork for a slow but steady shift towards more sustainable packaging by championing re-usable and refillable systems. With consumers actively seeking more sustainable packaging alternatives – for example, the unstoppable growth of refillable water bottles – these brands are turning necessity into opportunity.
Blueland, a new DTC brand, sells a range of refillable cleaning products. Eliminating the need for single-use plastic packaging, its Clean Up Kit includes three re-usable bottles and three different tablets for multi-surface, glass and mirror, and bathroom cleaning. The tablets are dissolved in water to create non-toxic household cleaners, with tablet refills available for £1.58 ($2, €1.76). Building on this tablet-based system, the company plans to release further sustainable cleaning products, alongside a personal care range.
‘When people hear eco-friendly, they assume the products will be less effective, more expensive and more work,’ says Sarah Paiji Yoo, CEO and co-founder of Blueland. ‘We’re flipping this on its head with cutting-edge formulas, readily biodegradable packaging and money-saving refill tablets.’
Taking the concept of DIY one step further, Cleanyst’s countertop appliance can be used to create a variety of cleaning and personal care products by mixing concentrated ingredients – presented in re-usable packaging – with tap water. With its everyday household product formulas, the company estimates that it can reduce single-use plastic waste in the home and bodycare category by 80%, saving consumers an average of £117 ($150, €134) a year. ‘Just like consumers are adapting their behaviours in response to mounting environmental issues, we believe the packaging industry must similarly adapt,’ says Nick Gunia, co-founder of Cleanyst.
Just like consumers are adapting their behaviours in response to mounting environmental issues, we believe the packaging industry must similarly adapt
In the US, 48% of consumers now shop from DTC brands, highlighting the growing importance of these less traditional retail models (source: IAB). At the same time, global e-commerce sales increased by 23.3% in 2018 (source: eMarketer). This age of online retail is significantly contributing to the global waste crisis, with more packaging than ever being used for the delivery and return of an ever-increasing number of online purchases. But this landscape also presents an opportunity to rethink logistics and develop planet-positive packaging and delivery initiatives.
One company tackling this is Liviri, which provides a sustainable, high-performance shipping solution for fresh food and ingredients. According to the company, food packaging and containers add up to almost half of the materials sent to landfill in the US. To address this, its re-usable shipping box offers built-in insulation and can be delivered fully stocked to consumers before being returned to retailers to be re-used for up to 75 deliveries. Such innovations could prove invaluable as alternative retail concepts such as subscription box services continue to grow in popularity.
Transforming the packaging and distribution of an even wider range of everyday essentials, Loop is a circular shopping platform that enables consumers to buy popular products from leading FMCG brands – among them, Dove, Gillette, Häagen-Dazs and Tropicana – in refillable packaging formats. The concept is inspired by glass bottle milk delivery and re-imagines it for a wider range of household goods. Branded goods are delivered in re-usable containers that are collected, cleaned and refilled once the product is used.
1. As YouGov reports, excess packaging and the plastic associated with shopping is becoming a growing concern in the minds of many consumers.
2. As new legislation such as the UK’s plastic packaging tax loom, savvy retailers are exploring how packaging-free initiatives such as zero-waste stores can support customers’ interest in more sustainable packaging alternatives.
3. As demonstrated by Blueland and Cleanyst, consider how your brand’s products could be reformulated for re-usable and refillable systems that address the issue of single-use packaging across a wider range of product categories.
4. While e-commerce is significantly contributing to the global waste crisis, growing online sales present an opportunity and a need for retailers to reconsider the delivery and return of products.
5. Brands and retailers can become more sustainable while still catering for consumer demand for convenience. Consider how Loop is transforming the packaging and distribution of everyday essentials and household brands.