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Cheap, flexible and multipurpose plastic has become the ubiquitous material of today’s fast-moving economy. Modern society would be lost without it.

But our ‘take-make-dispose’ approach to consumption means that most packaging rarely gets used a second time. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, around 95% of the value of plastic packaging is lost to the economy after one short use.

It’s unsustainable.

As a business, we’re acutely aware of the causes and consequences of this model. And we are working hard to change it.

One way we’re doing that is by exploring different options around refill and reuse.

The benefits

Reducing the need for plastic is clearly good for the environment. The urgency to act on plastic pollution is now widely understood and many large organisations – including Unilever – are committed to creating a circular economy for plastic. Recycling is important, but it’s just one component. Refillable and reusable could well be the gamechanger we need.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly demanding more eco-friendly packaging and a reduction in plastic. Preferences are also shifting to more sophisticated packaging, including higher quality and even personalised. Innovative reuse models can tap into these shifting trends by, for example, delivering better-looking, more functional packaging that allows customisation.

This, in turn, presents a business opportunity. Through more convenient models and more attractive packaging, we can deliver a superior user experience and build brand loyalty. It can also help save costs, particularly in terms of transportation.

According to a new report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (PDF | 9MB), replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth at least $10 billion.


The challenges

There are several ways in which refill-reuse models could work. You can fill up your container at home using refills you buy at a shop or online. You can use an in-store dispensing machine at a large supermarket. You can get your empty containers picked up from home, replenished and delivered back. Or you can return packaging at a store or drop-off point, as part of a deposit-return scheme.

While different options will suit different people and different circumstances, they all pose their own challenges.

From a business perspective, there are various considerations. For example, putting a dispensing machine in a shop or picking up empty packaging to wash, refill and return requires very different distribution and logistics operations that, to work, need to be efficient and economically viable.

Deposit and reward schemes must be carefully thought through to ensure they incentivise the return of packaging without putting consumers off with a high initial deposit. And if we want consumers to return bottles, we need to make sure there are enough drop-off points in the right locations.

But even if business gets this side of the equation sorted, we can’t force consumers to buy into the idea. That's why we need to work with others on this transition. It requires people to change often long-held habits in terms of how they both shop and consume.

Will consumers think it’s too much hassle to clean their containers and take them to a shop to refill them? It’s becoming the norm for us to carry refillable water bottles, but is it a step too far to lug big laundry bottles back and forth?

Will they be tempted by smaller, less impressive looking refill packs that sit alongside full-sized products on the supermarket shelf?

Will they trust that a concentrated refill diluted with water at home really does have the same cleaning power?

As Richard Slater, Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer, explains: “This is a really exciting area and one where we’re aiming to take a leading role. While we’ve been designing potential solutions and experimenting for some time, it’s a new and very different concept for consumers.

“We’re trailing various approaches to tackle the issue, as there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re determined to make a real difference on the plastics challenge, and so we’ll continue to experiment and to test, learn and refine.”

Closing the loop 

The other thing to remember is that this won’t necessarily get rid of plastic completely. Plastic is still involved in some way in most models – in the small refill bottles or the bulk dispensing containers in-store. Plus of course, for the most part, the initial reusable container is made from plastic.

What’s important is that these models – if designed and implemented correctly – will dramatically reduce the amount of plastic in circulation. Plus, to really ‘close the loop’, we need to make sure that most, if not all, the various elements are themselves widely recyclable.

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