Action on plastics: Has Covid-19 stopped the refill revolution?

Many retailers and brands backtracked on plastic-free refill pledges in a bid to stop Covid-19 from spreading earlier this year. But are we really headed back towards single-use in the long term, or will there be a different "new normal" for packaging?

Action on plastics: Has Covid-19 stopped the refill revolution?

Retailers and manufacturers are having to adapt to changing rules and consumption patterns

2020 has, undeniably, not panned out quite the way any of us expected. Had you told your past self about remote working, social distancing and cancelled holidays, they would probably be shocked and confused. The pandemic has affected all facets of life, from our personal lives and our communities, to our national economies and international supply chains.

In environmental terms, one of the most obvious impacts has been on packaging. Amid initial lockdown restrictions in spring, many retailers were forced to close stores with refill or packaging-free offerings, including Lush and The Body Shop. Elsewhere on the high street, some supermarkets removed loose fruit and veg; some coffee shops stopped accepting refillable cups and some of City to Sea’s busiest Refill stations were closed or experienced a sharp drop in footfall.

The big plastics lobby took advantage of heightened public health concerns. Aside from engaging with policymakers over taxes, charges and stimulus packages, pro-plastics lobby groups discouraged shoppers from bringing ‘bags for life’ to supermarkets, arguing that Covid-19 could live on these surfaces for days. These claims were only officially disproven by scientists in late June.

All signs point to the refill vs pandemic conversation having moved on since this point. Most UK coffee shops are now accepting refillable cups again. McDonald’s and Burger King are looking to reusable cups in the coming months. Asda has opened a ‘sustainability store’ with refillable formats of more than 30 products, while Procter & Gamble (P&G) has confirmed plans for refillable shampoo bottles. And surveys have repeatedly concluded that the pandemic has made the public more environmentally conscious.

Back in the Loop

With this in mind, edie spoke to TerraCycle’s chief executive Tom Szaky to better understand the practicalities and cultural sensitivities of offering refill during a pandemic. Szaky is the brainchild behind Loop, which, pre-Covid-19, had been growing at a rate of a brand a day.

“Covid-19 has impacted traditional refill, where you take your own container into a store to be refilled, in a big way,” he said.

“In terms of the Loop model though, outside an understandable delay to launching Loop in the UK and Canada, we haven’t really been impacted…. Following Covid, we had to make no upgrades to our cleaning processes at all in terms of people or overall protocol.”

Loop’s overarching purpose for being is to make refill as convenient and attractive as single-use. It works by enabling customers to order things like food, drinks and toiletries in reusable packaging online through third-party retailers like Carrefour in France and Tesco in the UK. They pay a deposit for the packaging, which they get back once they have it collected by courier. TerraCycle then assumes responsibility for cleaning the empty containers and recycling them at the end-of-life stage, while brands take responsibility for refilling them.

Despite logistical challenges with bringing Loop to new markets during government restrictions, Szaky maintains that the model is fairly pandemic-proof. Brands like Ecover and Danone joined the UK platform during the first lockdown and Szaky said the American and French markets “saw some of their best-performing months”. He believes this is “undoubtedly partly down to the tailwind of increase in eCommerce during the lockdown”. Collectively, the world’s 2,000 most popular online shopping sites recorded almost 22 billion visits in June – an increase of five billion visits from the previous year.

Rebuilding trust

While Loop has remained strong during the pandemic and retailers with traditional refill models are beginning to open or expand in some regions, restrictions are yet to life elsewhere, and, in some places, rules are tightening amid fears of a second wave. Some 20 million Brits, for example, are now under Tier 2 rules.  

Amid an ever-changing backdrop of scientific advice and rules, most retailers are still seeing reduced footfall in-store. Visitors to high streets and shopping centres alike are down by around one-third year-on-year.

Many businesses are turning to interactive models to coax customers back, including Selfridges and H&M. For Szaky, the challenge for those offering packaging-free products is convincing consumers that they are as hygienic as products in single-use packaging – which may well have been touched by many people in-store.

“Neither single use or reuse packaging are inherently safe or unsafe – it’s how you deploy these systems,” he said. “Consumer perception of reuse and how reuse is framed is massively important.  People are used to reuse without even thinking about it – think about the medical industry or dentists.”

Convenience and price point are also key factors in winning hearts and minds. On the latter, a BBC documentary last year found that the price difference between loose and pre-packed groceries in UK supermarkets was 19% on average. A more recent survey from Beyond the Box found that one in five Brits think they can’t afford to shop more sustainably. Szaky believes that no amount of zero-waste influencers will mask the fact that these issues must be tackled to scale-up the refill economy.

The good news is that the latest generation of refill models seem to be tackling this challenge head-on. Refill is the obvious example – removing the social stigma and access problems around free tap water make it convenient on-the-go. Elsewhere, loose products at Asda’s new ‘sustainability store’ are sold at price parity with pre-packed versions and the supermarket has pledged to make loose and low-packaging items more affordable. Aldi is selling reusable produce bags made from recycled plastics for 25p and has kept its loose fruit and veg at price parity. And many retailers have kept multipack deals while removing plastic shrinkwrap from canned foods.

Time will tell what the “new normal” brings for plastics packaging. But it’s clear that businesses haven’t lost their appetite for new, plastic-free and low-plastic models over lockdown. We are likely to get more clarity as plastics-related policy packages that were delayed over Covid-19 return to the table in 2021.

Sarah George

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