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Is Refill the Sustainable Way Forward?

by Jo Barnard on 07/29/2021 | 4 Minute Read

The Coronavirus pandemic dramatically increased the consumption of single-use plastic via the creation of PPE, use of disinfecting wipes, and online shopping packaging. Because of this, cosmetic brands have more responsibility than ever to minimize the amount of plastic across their products. 

Due partly to hygienic purposes, the beauty industry is the top offender for creating plastic waste, contributing 120 billion units of packaging every year. Sadly, most of it is not even recyclable.

The use of refills has gained traction within the cosmetic space in recent years, as they prolong the use of material value, minimizing the need for new materials and lower CO2 emissions. But whether that’s through refillable pouches, biodegradable materials, or durable and reusable aluminum packaging, beauty brands need to work with consumers’ habits to ensure sustainable credentials don’t mean a compromise on the offering and user experience.

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Taking Back Control with Returnable Pouches

The most common refillable option available on the market is a pouch typically made from a laminate of plastics, aluminum, or both. The packaging is leakproof, lightweight, and costs less than run-of-the-mill on-shelf packaging. However, since there isn't a curbside recyclable pouch on the market, the consumer is now on the hook. Foolishly, brands expect them to have the dedication to recycle them correctly or return the packaging.

We hope that, in time, we will see the model used by companies such as Bower Collective become the norm. They take the refill solution a step further by providing pre-paid letter-box-friendly envelopes along with their refill pouches so that consumers can easily collect and return them to be washed and reused. If users get on board and do their part, we have a solution that generates less waste. Unfortunately, that’s still a big if.

The real problem is a lack of awareness and education from brands and government bodies. We expect to know the most sustainable disposal methods for all types of packaging, and varying recycling systems can create unnecessary complications for recycling infrastructure. To create a circular economy, however, we must take more responsibility when consumers request further guidance from brands.

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Aluminum: the Ideal 

Another viable alternative material is aluminum, which is often perceived as the sustainable option for reusable containers within the FMCG space and is gaining traction in the beauty sector. With around 75% of aluminum packaging getting recycled in the UK, it works for customers that want to keep or reuse the aluminum bottle and for those that would prefer to recycle.

UK brand KANKAN uses classic aluminum drinks cans for their soap refills, a piece of packaging we instinctively put in the recycling bin. And cosmetic brands such as Haeckels use aluminum for the packaging you keep and refill, knowing that, at the end of its life, the customer can still dispose of it responsibly with ease.

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Taking the Responsibility Off the Customer with Compostables

The alternate option is doing the right thing and taking the onus off of the customer entirely. Especially for bathroom products where most of us do not keep a recycling bin, brands that create recyclable packaging and then pat themselves on the back for being sustainable make assumptions of their customers. 

A brand that recognizes this is Wild, the world’s first zero plastic refill deodorant. We partnered with them to design their case from aluminum and post-consumer recycled plastic so it can get used again and again. Combined with the unique paper pulp-based refills that are home compostable or recyclable, the offering significantly reduces the impact consumers have on the planet without them changing their behavior. Working with a consumer's habits, instead of against them, ensures there is no compromise on sustainable credentials. 

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While refills and other sustainable initiatives such as using recycled plastic are often great ways to minimize the environmental impact, it isn’t always the case. Even though single-use plastic pouches still reduce the plastic content needed, without clear information or legislation on recycling them, they could get viewed as a sustainable steppingstone, yet to reach their full potential. Also, with brands treating green efforts as a marketing tactic because it’s popular, consumers are becoming warier of greenwashing, so companies must do their research.

Materials, form, consumer behavior, and above all, the product itself needs taking into account when considering packaging, and refillable might not always be the answer. Ultimately, companies trying to be more sustainable need to take more responsibility for the end-of-life of their products.

And we, as consumers, should hold those brands accountable when it’s not clear.