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Is refill business model the solution for our packaging nightmare?

When it comes to more sustainable consumption and reducing single-use plastic waste from packaging, the problem does not always lie in finding a new, innovative, biodegradable material, but to change the way we consume things. Refill stations have become more and more popular across the world, promoting a new shopping/living style. Though, the question is that whether this is the ultimate solution for our problem, or just a trend for the new generations?

What is refill business model?

Simply talking, a refill business model is one where products are sold in reusable or packaging-free container to minimise the amount of single-use packaging waste released to the environment. The most common items for refill business model include daily products like pasta, rice, detergent, soap, etc.

According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by replacing 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives is conservatively estimated to create a financial opportunity of at least USD 10 billion.

The four reuse models as explained by Ellen Macarthur Foundation (Source: the Internet)
The four reuse models as explained by Ellen MacArthur Foundation (Source: the Internet)

Successful businesses based on the refill model have been developed worldwide. According to Greenpeace, by 2019, there were about 400 refill businesses worldwide, with some big players like Sainsbury's and M&S opening their own refill aisle after listening to the huge demand from eco-friendly customers. Fill provides a range of refillable eco-laundry, home cleaning and personal care products that look cool, perform well and reduce packaging waste. At their own Family Leader Factory in Northamptonshire, Fill work with real chemists to combine biodegradable ingredients to create simple, modern and effective eco-cleaning and laundry products. The most important thing is that there are no disposable PET bottle.

Refill business model brings a number of advantages, not only in reducing single-use packaging waste, but also supporting local suppliers, introducing unique products and minimising food waste as consumers can buy the exact amount as they need (instead of purchasing the pre-packed product that is much more than what they need).

This refill model is not even a new concept. Do you still remember the milkman and glass bottles that our parent and grandparent generations had at the front door to exchange for fresh milk every day? So why not bring the old trend back?

A typical setup at a refill stations, where all products are stored in big containers and customers can take how much they want, rather than in pre-packed packaging (source: the Internet)
A typical setup at a refill stations, where all products are stored in big containers and customers can take how much they want, rather than in pre-packed packaging (source: the Internet)

Why is refill business model still considered as a trend?

The general aim of zero waste shopping or refill business model is to reduce the overall environmental cost of manufacturing disposable plastics. However, it is important to consider the aspect of material and carbon footprint throughout the whole life time of packaging. According to Simon Aumônier, a lead partner in environmental resource management (ERM), "replacing a piece of single-use plastic packaging with a tupperware container means you’ve got maybe ten times the material – therefore you need to reuse it maybe 10 or 20 or 100 times before it’s a better solution in material consumption terms". Hence, it is important that refill business model actually encounters the importance of the number of time their reusable containers are reused, otherwise, the ultimate goal is not there anymore.

Another problem is for people living in countries where cars are not the main method of transportation, including in Vietnam, as with reusable containers, it is generally more difficult (and frustrating) to drive or cycle around. In order to shop at refill stations, shoppers need to plan in advance, and bring all the containers with them. Most refill shops offer free/charged containers and customers can return them next time, however, it always involves carrying a huge number of containers at some points on tiny motorbike or bicycle.

In order to minimise waste, most refill stations choose to sell items with long shelf-life like pasta, rice, washing liquid, etc.; as a result, most shoppers have a very limited choice of items, and they end up having to travel to another shop (by car or bike, which again generates carbon footprint) to get other wanted items. The number of choices is also generally limited when compared to commercial supermarkets, as it is almost impossible for refill stations owners to stock various types that might end up expiring and going to landfill.

So what do I do???

Pursuing a sustainable lifestyle is not easy, and there is no one-fit-all solution for our burning problem. Most people still believe that refill business model is a promising concept, which can inspire other innovative solutions for modern shopping style. It is important to think that the end result is not the only aim, but the whole process counts! Start buying locally, always bring reusable bags and 1 or 2 small containers that can fit your bag, walk or cycle when you can, and talk to others about the importance of having a positive, sustainable mindset!

Source: collective from the internet


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