Asda and Unilever partner with WRAP to help make refillable packaging more popular

Unilever is trialling refillable versions of brands including Persil

Unilever launched pre-filled returnable and reusable stainless steel bottles at Asda’s “sustainability store” in Leeds back in June, alongside in-store refill stations and empty bottles, to test which format got the higher uptake.

Shortly after that, Asda launched more than a dozen additional product lines in refillable formats at the store in Middleton, and also outlined plans to bring the offer to additional UK locations by the end of the year.

Now, under the partnership with WRAP, there will be “in-depth” research into consumer behaviours around the retailer’s refill offering. Researchers will engage with shoppers as they plan their shopping lists, make choices in store, and decant and use products at home. This same research format has been used with WRAP’s work on reducing food waste in stores and at home.

The UK Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, is providing funding for the research.

Both Asda and Unilever were already signed on to WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact. Under the pact, signatories make four main commitments for 2025: eliminating unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign; making all plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable; achieving recycling and composting rates of 70% or more for packaging, and including 30% recycled content across all packaging.

WRAP has said that the findings from the new research will be “invaluable” to retailers and FMCG brands looking to expand their refill offerings and reduce their packaging footprint in the coming years. Preliminary surveys with hundreds of UK-based adults have found that while two-thirds are open to using refillable products, there are still widespread concerns about the perceived cost, the perceived time and effort and a general apprehension with trying something new. “Deeply ingrained” habits will need to be changed, WRAP has stated, with proper support from businesses.

These consumer-facing challenges, compounded by challenges in changing supply chains and retaining health and safety amid Covid-19, appear to have dampened the business desire for investment in refillable packaging. A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation last November revealed that just 2% of the products sold by the world’s biggest consumer goods firms during 2020 came in reusable packaging.  A more recent study from the Foundation, published last month, reveals slow progress since then.

“We’ve seen Pact members introducing some successful small-scale trials of refills, but we know we need more evidence to understand how these can be rolled out on a wider scale and become part of our daily shopping habits,” said WRAP’s chief executive Marcus Gover.

“This way of shopping needs to become a habit if we are going to make serious headway in eliminating unnecessary plastic packaging and meet the targets of The UK Plastics Pact.”

Unilever UK & Ireland’s communications and corporate affairs officer, Yvette Edwards, added:  “We need to make it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices every day. We believe reusable packaging could help reduce plastic waste at scale, but it is a totally new way of shopping requiring new behaviours at home and instore.

“To encourage and enable more people to trial our reusable products and to continue to buy them in the longer term, we are pleased to be working with our partners WRAP and Asda so we can test and learn together and gather insight on what will work most effectively”.

Interested in more plastics-related content? Read edie’s new blog from Jeff Seabright

Unilever’s former chief sustainability officer Jeff Seabright, now chair of Xampla, recently penned an exclusive blog for edie entitled: “COP27 is already in sight and plastics must be top of its agenda”. 

Click here to read this article in full.

Sarah George

Comments (3)

  1. Roger Munford says:

    why not start with the low hanging fruit i.e. beer juice, milk dairy products.
    They have never stopped in Germany, the UK did in the sixties.
    Everyday we collect and smash up glass, ship it to the North of England, melt it make new bottles and ship them all over the country when all we need to do is wash them.
    Who would shrink at stopping a dishwasher and taking a hot clean glass out ?
    Who would willingly put their hand in a glass furnace and take out a handful of molten glass?
    It only takes a deposit, and somebody to say sorry you will have to give a bit store space for reuseables handling. Instead lets do a study and put off the inconvenient obvious solution for another few years. Make an effort

  2. Nigel Morris says:

    Behavioural change, especially ones that require consumers to think ahead and to take a less easy path, require long term, sustained, varied, multi point influence and education.

  3. IAN ADAMSON says:

    I’ve always been a tad sceptical of Unilever being an ethical consumer reader but over the recent months there does indeed seem to be a healthy leaning toward becoming more environmentally friendly such as making PG bags biodegradable etc.

    Even as a concerned, ethical consumer myself I see the refill food retail sector as a slow burn appealing more to fringe buyers rather than the people with the money and the choice.

    Good luck to Unilever, ASDA and WRAP; Nigel (below) is spot on – this is behavioural change and there’s a lot to change.

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