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Sustainable Packaging Innovations: Unlocking the Power of Reusable and Refillable Packaging

In this episode of Sustainable Packaging Explained, we delve into the world of reusable and refillable packaging; the characteristics, pros, and cons, including the distinct models that have emerged.


Welcome to Sustainable Packaging Explained — your guide to sustainable materials, methods, and package design, produced by the Emerging Brands Alliance in conjunction with Packaging World.

In today's episode, we explore reusable and refillable packaging. As the demand for sustainable packaging options continues to grow, brands and consumers are showing increased interest in reusable and refillable packaging. But what are these formats, and what are the pros and cons of using them?

While refillable and reusable are related concepts, they are not exactly the same.

Refillable refers to a specific characteristic of packaging that allows it to be replenished or refilled with the same or similar product once it is empty. The focus is on the ability to replenish the contents of the packaging without having to replace the entire container. This involves designing products with separate refillable containers that can easily replenish the product while reducing the amount of packaging waste generated. Refillable packaging can be found in various markets such as household cleaners and personal care products, and an example would be a household cleaner in a spray bottle that is refilled multiple times by a larger container with a screw cap, or by concentrated ingredients to which water is added.

On the other hand, reusable refers to packaging that is designed to be used multiple times, by the same consumer or by different users, regardless of whether it is refilled with the same product or different contents. Reusable packaging emphasizes the longevity and durability of the container, enabling it to be used again and again, reducing the need for single-use packaging. Examples of reusable packaging include glass bottles and jars, and stainless-steel containers, and in reusable packaging systems such as Loop, companies provide durable packaging that can be returned, cleaned, and reused for multiple cycles. These systems involve collaborations between companies, retailers, and consumers to promote the reuse of packaging materials.


Register for this Packaging World webinar on reusable and refillable packaging.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been closely monitoring this trend, and tells us that four distinct reusable, refillable packaging models have emerged in recent years. The models either ask the consumer to do the refilling on their own, often with a concentrated ‘just add water’ version of a product, or ask the consumer to return an empty container so the brand or CPG can do the refilling (like the milk man model from mid-century America). Consumers are also asked to either complete their respective refill or return duties from their homes, in a D2C or e-commerce model, or on-the-go in a retail store setting or kiosk. That leaves us with these four potential models:

·     Return from home

·      Return on the go

·      Refill at home

·      Refill on the go

The specific characteristics of your product exhibits, such as shelf life, viscosity, serving size, or a host of other factors, will determine which of these models, if any, might work for your brand. Also, established platforms exist that are actively onboarding emerging brands, having already worked out many of the kinks in reusable, refillable models. Return logistics or subscription-based replenishment, for instance, are complex formats that many emerging brands struggle with.  

 Returnable and reusable shipping crates - made of sturdy materials like plastic or metal - are used to transport goods from manufacturers to retailers, and are returned to the manufacturer for reuse, reducing the need for disposable secondary packaging materials.

In essence, all refillable packaging is reusable since it can be used multiple times, but not all reusable packaging is refillable. Refillable packaging focuses specifically on the ability to replenish the contents, while reusable packaging emphasizes the longevity and repeated use of the container itself.

Reusable and refillable packaging have numerous benefits. They reduce the generation of waste in landfills and oceans by eliminating the need for single-use packaging. They can save consumers money over time, while also encouraging a more sustainable consumption pattern as users refill existing containers or reuse durable packaging items.

Another benefit to these packaging options is the conservation of resources. By extending the lifespan of packaging materials, we reduce the demand for raw materials and energy required to manufacture new packaging. This model is called a circular economy, where resources are used efficiently, and waste is minimized.

In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence (or re-emergence if you count the milk man) of reusable, refillable packaging, and successful brands are currently navigating the unique sets of challenges and opportunities these models afford.

The main driver behind this trend is an improved sustainability profile. And the mantra we all have memorized, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” comes from a waste management hierarchy developed by the U.S. EPA. It’s important to note that this is an ordered hierarchy, not a list, meaning material reduction and reuse is actually preferred to recycling.

We’ve seen that modern version of reusable, refillable packaging can successfully be adopted by consumers for many different CPG, home care or personal care and health, food and beverage, and other related spaces, in all sorts of packaging formats. Consumers take some training as these models represent a major departure from the single-use model they’re used to. But so far, enough consumers appear to be willing to change their behavior to keep these models afloat. But can we get everyone on board?

Implementing reusable and refillable packaging does come with challenges. One obstacle is changing consumer behavior and mindset. Encouraging consumers to adopt reusable and refillable practices requires education to highlight the environmental benefits and convenience of these packaging options.

Another challenge lies in the logistics and infrastructure needed to support these packaging systems. Refill stations need to be strategically placed in retail locations, and the collection and cleaning of reusable containers require efficient systems. Investing in these infrastructure developments is vital to ensure the success and scalability of reusable and refillable packaging initiatives.

Brands also play a crucial role in driving the adoption of reusable and refillable packaging by investing in product design that accommodates refillable containers and providing incentives for consumers to choose these options, such as discounts or loyalty programs. Collaboration among brands, packaging suppliers, and retailers is essential to create a seamless and widespread system for reusable and refillable packaging.

Even though there are challenges, more brands are exploring and adopting these packaging strategies. And, technological advancements in packaging design and manufacturing are making it easier to create durable and user-friendly reusable containers.

As always, it is best to perform a life-cycle analysis of a product to determine if reusable or refillable packaging would be a viable option for the situation.

Thanks for watching and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more videos on packaging and scaling operations. And join us at the Emerging Brands Alliance for year-round resources to grow your brand.

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