Refill systems - less environmentally friendly than we would like to think?
Updated: Jan 25
Earlier this year, The Body Shop, a natural-style personal care brand, launched refill stations for their shampoo, conditioner, shower and hand wash products in select retail outlets. Consumers can now use refillable aluminium bottles provided by the company instead of buying single-use plastic bottles. For details, please see:
They give you durable aluminium bottles with pumps free of cost. The products are delivered to the refill stations in bulk packs in the "bag-in-box" format. You take the empty bottle to the refill station, where a sales associate will refill your bottle at a large and eye-catching display stand in the store.
To encourage uptake, they sell the refilled product at a significant discount over the price per ml you pay when buying the single-use plastic bottle.
The scheme seems to provide a way for the environmentally aware of living more in line with their beliefs, but is it really as effective as we'd like to think and is it overall a good move for the business?
In this article, we consider this initiative's benefits and shortcomings through the lens of the three p's of sustainability: people, planet and profit.
Image Credit: Refill Station The Body Shop, Galaxy Mall Surabaya /Warta Sidoarjo/I ker
We appreciate this well-intentioned and innovative program from The Body Shop and commend the company's commitment to bringing about positive change. However, its present form is unlikely to be a sustainable, scalable solution. In some respects, it might make things worse.
We suggest simpler, alternative approaches to achieve the end goal - of reducing plastic pollution - more effectively. Packaging for the Future is expert in delivering such solutions.
Here is our detailed analysis of the refill program from The Body Shop.
Every time you refill, you prevent a plastic bottle from ending in waste. However, this is only part of the picture.
Point 1: The system is still far from being plastic free. It also uses up a lot of other materials.
Plastic is still needed to transport the products to the shops. The product is transported in cardboard boxes with flexible plastic bags inside. The larger packs mean less plastic per litre of product, but there is still a need for the thick flexible plastic bag inside the boxes. The bag-in-box has to be discarded after use. At this point, the inside of the "empty" flexible plastic bag contains a substantial product residue. This does not make recycling easy, not to mention the environmental impact of the product waste.
While the conventional single-use bottle has a cap and can be inverted and squeezed to dispense the product, the aluminium bottle requires a plastic pump. These pumps are complicated assemblies that use plastic and metal and, therefore not easily recycled. There is also plastic used to make the large in-store pumps. These pumps will last less time than the aluminium bottles. The company does supply a recycling box for these items in store, another cardboard structure lined with a plastic bag - again, it's more plastic in use.
Many materials are required to construct and install the display and refill stations to support the system. Assuming that 100kg of materials is required to erect one refill station, that translates to 40,000 kg (40 tons) of materials to create 400 refill stations globally.
The company says that it has saved more than 3.7 tonnes of plastic since it started the scheme with 400 global refill stations. Of course, as they sell more products in these refill stations, more plastic will be saved, but we wonder if the overall equation on materials breaks even.
Point 2: Washing out the aluminium bottles requires energy & water
The directions provided by the company are as follows (we have added the italics and the bold font):
"HOW DO I CLEAN MY BOTTLE?
Before refilling in store, even with the same scent, ensure your bottle is clean and dry to keep your next refill fresh. Here's how to do it:
Rinse your bottle and the pump in lukewarm water until visibly clean. Shake to loosen any stubborn bits.
Half fill your bottle with water and pump it out through the pump.
Finish with one last rinse using cooled, boiled water.
Leave to completely dry."
We can understand why this is required (to avoid contamination/microorganism growth). But the cleaning process requires significant water and energy every time the aluminium bottle is refilled. This is not needed with single-use plastic bottles.
Point 3: Production of the aluminium bottle has significant environmental impacts such as mining and energy. However, since the bottle is durable, this will likely be offset after multiple uses.
The above analysis has not addressed the lifecycle CO2 emissions associated with conventional bottles and the refill system. But there is room for concern on this count.
For this to work for the planet and the company, it must work for people. Does it?
Point 4: Washing out and reusing the bottles requires effort, time and cost.
Point 5: They have to prepare the bottle for each refill and then plan out when they will carry the bottle to get the refill. Before, they might have gone to the office and, on the way home, picked up a bottle of shampoo. Now they might carry the empty aluminium bottle into the office and then take it for a refill on the way home. Overall more planning and care are required from consumers.
Point 6: There may be a smaller selection of products available in the refill format compared to the range of products in plastic bottles. So you may only sometimes get the option that you want.
But if consumers are happy with their options and dedicated to the cause enough to choose the refill schemes, does it really work for the company? That's what we consider next.
Profits are essential for survival and innovation. Is this initiative good for company profits?
Point 7: From the information on the company website, we estimate that the total discount on the price per ml paid by the consumer is around 37%. This is a big hit to the top line. Our experience from other projects suggests that consumers expect discounts in this range because they feel the company should pass on the reduction of the cost of the plastic bottle.
Point 8: There may be no reduction in the costs incurred by the company to supply one refill at the point of sale. We expect that the savings from the avoidance of the single-use plastic bottle are offset (likely more than offset) by all the other costs of materials, assembly, transportation and labour. Having a dedicated person - especially in the high wage countries - to staff the refill stations alone is likely to offset the cost of the bottles saved.
Point 9: Some wasted product per ml served to the consumer.
With each bulk pack (bag-in-box), it is impossible to get out the shampoo all around the sides and beyond the pump's reach. This means there would be a lot of wasted product, while when you have your own bottle at home, as an environmentally conscious consumer, you will usually use up all of the product. The wastage in the bag-in-box is undoubtedly bad for the environment and is worse for profits.
The company appears to have a policy to avoid potential cross-contamination that doesn't allow staff to use the last bit of the product left in the bag-in-box. I.e., they would not partially fill an aluminium bottle at the end of the current bag-in-box and get the remainder from a new bag-in-box. This might mean some usable product from each boxed bag will be left over.
Point 10: The cost of the aluminium bottles and pumps is high, and if the consumers are not fully charged for it (which appears to be the case currently), this impacts the profits further.
To be financially viable, the product needs to be sold at the same price per ml as the conventional product in plastic bottles. In fact, we have seen examples where the refilled product needs to be sold at a premium over the conventional product to maintain current profits. But when companies try that, the purchase intent from the consumers reduces significantly.
Given all the issues for people, planet and profit, this is not a sustainable and scalable long-term solution.
Currently, the number of refill stations is increasing, and there is much excitement about them. To be environmentally beneficial (i.e., to offset the cost and environmental impact of the refill system), the solution must get scaled up and account for a large share of the company's business. However, if this happens, the business's profitability is likely to diminish substantially.
So, what can The Body Shop and other environmentally conscious companies do to reduce plastic pollution?
Our experience suggests that there is room for significantly reducing the amount of plastic in single-use packs. Examples:
Unpackaged or minimally packaged product formats
Using highly efficient designs and manufacturing processes for the bottles and caps.
Increasing pack size
Where recycling exists, alternative pack formats like flexible plastic pouches (mono-material)
Such solutions can continue to be sold on retail shelves. They do not suffer from many of the issues highlighted in this article and have a high potential to be more favourable for the planet, people and profits.
At Packaging for the Future we are experts in deploying the "Reduce" strategy. We have already saved over 100,000 tonnes of plastic waste and over 150 million Euros for our clients through our work. If you'd like to see how we can help you reduce environmental impact while reducing costs, be in touch for a consultation.
Image shows: Body Shop display with newer lower plastic containers and wrappers, UK, 2022