Emerging Technologies

These refill innovations are stemming the flood of single-use plastics

Global plastic production is rising, and companies that embrace refill solutions stand to benefit financially while helping the environment..

Global plastic production is rising, and companies that embrace refill solutions stand to benefit financially while helping the environment.. Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Emerging Technologies

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  • Global plastic production is 400 million tonnes a year and rising, while at the same time, recycling rates are slipping.
  • One of the solutions that world needs now is more refillable containers.
  • Here are some smart technologies that are making refilling a reality.

As the amount of plastic produced worldwide continues to rise, and recycling rates fall, it’s never been more important to find new ways to reuse what we already have rather than produce more.

Currently, the world produces 400 million tonnes of plastic every year, a figure that is forecast to reach 1.1 billion tonnes by 2050, according to the UN Environment Programme. Yet data shows the rate of recycling for plastic bottles has slowed in recent years.

Plastic bottles represent a particular problem. Data compiled by EcoWatch shows that 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away every hour in the United States alone. What if they could be refilled and reused?

One obstacle has been concerns about the safety of refilling single-use mineral water or soft drink plastic bottles. Fears have been raised over leaching of carcinogenic compounds from reused bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET.

Back to the future

For non-food containers, refilling has become an established alternative. Global beauty brand The Body Shop offered customers the chance to refill containers of their products, partly due to keeping prices low by avoiding buying new containers. But now, the company is one of the pioneers of a new approach to reusing and refilling containers using aluminium bottles that prevent the need for plastic.

Filling stations are appearing in their stores using a business model that is growing in popularity. Customers pay $2.50 (£2) for a container they can fill with products at a lower cost than buying a conventional plastic bottle.

A woman walking past plastic bottle stand in a supermarket.
Re-turn and re-clean: A plastic Re return station in a UK supermarket. Image: Re.

A challenge with allowing customers to reuse containers is cross-contamination caused by ineffective cleaning. A UK-based company called Re, part of the World Economic Forum’s Circulars Accelerator Programme, has developed a tech-based solution.

Rather than refilling containers, consumers scan the empty bottle at one of Re’s in-store machines and drop it into a bin to be collected, cleaned and reused. In return, the customer gets a digital token to be used against purchasing a replacement product.

Re says the trials showed that automatic refilling by machines was sometimes not as quick and straightforward as expected. “That’s why we have made your lives easier and now do the cleaning & refilling of the bottles for you,” the company says on its website.

Call a refill bike to reduce plastic waste

Like the Body Shop’s solution, Re’s approach requires customers to go to a shop. But Siklus, a business based in Jakarta, Indonesia, is taking the refilling machines to the customer using “refill bikes”.

Siklus is featured on the Forum’s Uplink innovation crowdsourcing platform. The company is trying to tackle a problem that especially affects Indonesia, which according to UN data, is the second-largest ocean plastic polluter in the world.

Refills being transported by bike in Indonesia, to reduce plastic waste.
Refills being transported by bike in Indonesia, to reduce plastic waste. Image: Siklus.

Affordability means 70% of Indonesians buy household goods in single-serving sachets, which can be three times more expensive than buying large packs. Siklus lets people buy only what they need using their own containers, saving money and eliminating waste.

Packaging can add 15% to the cost of products like laundry and cleaning liquids, says Siklus, so reusing bottles saves money for the least well-off. It’s one of the reasons why Algramo – the name means “by the gram” – has been a success in Santiago, Chile.

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Partnering with leading brands, Algramo, which is also featured on Uplink, came about through serving low-income neighbourhoods. It says reusing and refilling can save customers up to 30%, and it has to date avoided the use of almost 98 tonnes of plastic.

Launched in 2013, Algramo’s app-based smart refill system is now available in four countries, including the US and the UK, allowing customers to buy as much or as little as they need. Like Siklus, they deliver to customers’ homes as well as have in-store filling machines.

Refillable solutions

These circular economy innovators are not alone in promoting refillable solutions to tackle the problem of plastic waste. The Forum’s Future of Reusable Consumption Report recorded a rise in global patent filings for refill innovations.

The report also predicted that companies which embrace refill solutions will benefit financially as consumers feel “a deeper sense of connection with brands, particularly those associated with admired principles of sustainability.”

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