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Canned Refills Are Here and I Want Them To Go Viral

by Chloe Gordon on 07/25/2023 | 4 Minute Read

It feels like everything we do is for the sake of virality. 

Every brand, agency, influencer, and average person, whether they admit it or not, makes decisions based on the potential of going viral or because of something that unfurled like wildfire on the interwebs. And while some viral ideas are questionable—think The Penny Challenge, trying to slide a penny behind a partially plugged in charger, or The Cereal Challenge, also known as using a friend’s mouth as a makeshift cereal bowl—others feel inspired. Think Emily Mariko’s salmon and rice bowl, the simplicity of mixing baked salmon with rice and avocado, or how the summer's hottest accessory is the Stanley Cup (of all things).  

If only it could happen around sustainability and plastic-free materials.

Many brands are pushing the creative and eco-friendly limits by thinking about materials and packaging through a new lens. That generational perspective shift perspective can lead to superficial concepts, sure (now think Butter Boards, known as soft butter spread across a platter for maximized sharing, or playful movements like all the viral hits from Duolingo, because they’re one brand that has fully understood how to maximize on viral trends to capture their audience). But, believe it or not, it can also help guide designers to improve a brand's goals around sustainability.

A trend I've noticed lately in the world of packaging is the shift from plastic refillable canisters and pouches to aluminum cans. After all, they're not just for beer and soda.

When brands and designers are in search of creating the next big thing, especially with the speed of the trend cycle thanks to TikTok, there's a constant scramble to produce what consumers will admire. "Compared with older adults, Gen Zers and Millennials are talking more about the need for action on climate change," shares Pew Research. "Among social media users, they are seeing more climate change content online; and they are doing more to get involved with the issue through activities such as volunteering and attending rallies and protests." 


Gen Z's relationship with sustainability is undeniable and deeply intertwined with their social media presence. A glimpse into their social media feeds reveals the demographic's strong connection to environmental consciousness. The hashtag #sustainability alone garners an impressive 5 Billion views on TikTok. This constant chatter about sustainability helps inspire brands to make sustainable decisions, ones they can target at generational consumers looking to make a positive change. 

Sean Busch, co-founder of Puracy, a plant-based household essentials brand that focuses on beauty and cleaning products, shared that he realized most consumers disliked refilling their bottles, especially when they come packaged in flimsy refill pouches. The entire process proved cumbersome, from finding a suitable place to put the pump and avoid dirtying it to locating the refill pouch and trying not to spill or overfill the bottle. That inconvenience was significant enough that consumers looking for a more user-friendly design often disregarded their budget or environmental impact and opted to grab a new bottle. To help consumers combat this annoyance, Puracy implemented a canned refill system that utilizes the aluminum can that everyone knows from their favorite soda, but, instead, repurposes it to house cleaning supplies so they can just add a plastic spray top and not have to transfer any liquids. 


Similarly, the personal care brand KANKAN's, design brief was to find a solution to bring their refillable can into the hands of many consumers without compromising user experience. The new aluminum can design, also based on a soda can design with a bespoke dispenser attachment, shifts the refill category, not only making it less messy but breaking the barrier for an easily-adopted change and a better chance of consumers recycling the cans after use, as they're already accustomed to recycling their beverage cans. 

There’s also The Peeled Pantry, a body-care brand that uses cans for lightweight, durable, and low-waste liquid packaging. They offer just the aluminum can, but they also sell bundle packs with refillable glass bottles and pumps with the promise of a plastic-free delivery, further proving the brand’s commitment to a waste-free environment. 

While I’m sure some brands' intentions are mostly altruistic when offering refill pouches, the plastic they often come in almost defeats the purpose entirely. If you’re buying plastic refills, dumping the product in a container you own, and immediately throwing out the plastic, you're not really solving a problem. Plus, it's still a piece of plastic (and, even worse, potentially not recyclable). Sure, they often use fewer materials and reduce storage space and shipping costs, but these aluminum can refills prove that an even better and more sustainable option exists.  


While these brands exist within the home and body care categories, there's potential for refillable cans to break into other categories, like the food and beverage market. If you buy those trendy, squirt-able Graza bottles, you should at least have the option to refill them. The universal appeal and ease of use allow these refill cans to be easily adopted and understood by consumers. So while sometimes pursuing innovation for the sake of virality can have all sorts of negative undercurrents, canned refill is one I'd love to see all over TikTok. 

Likely, it's just a pipe dream, but because Gen Z is already on board with purchasing more sustainable options—and actually cares about our environment—I’ll keep dreaming on it.