World Refill Day: Shoppers press retailers and brands for affordable packaging-free options

New research released to mark World Refill Day (16 June) has revealed that half of UK shoppers are doing less to reduce their single-use plastic use than they were six months ago, with most believing that options with less or no packaging are not affordable.

World Refill Day: Shoppers press retailers and brands for affordable packaging-free options

Commissioned by not-for-profit environmental campaign organisation City to Sea, the research involved a survey of 2009 UK adults, conducted in late May. Participants were polled on their shopping habits and environmental concerns – and how these have shifted in light of the current cost of living crisis.

Two-thirds of participants said they have changed how they make their shopping decisions since the start of the year, as a direct result of increasing prices for essentials such as electricity, gas, fuel and groceries. Half said they are doing less to choose low-plastic and no-plastic items, with concerns about cost trumping concerns about plastic pollution.

The survey revealed that most people still find low-plastic and no-plastic products more expensive than their equivalents housed in single-use plastic. Two-thirds of participants said the supermarkets and brands they have access to are not doing enough to provide affordable refill options or other packaging-free options. 40% of people believe that zero-waste or plastic-free options are always more expensive.

Promisingly, the research findings do suggest that most people would use affordable refillable products, with accessibility and cost currently the main barriers. 93% of people said they would like to see more of these options on offer, and 95% said they are concerned about plastic waste and pollution.

The findings revealed that demand for refillable products was highest among those aged 45 and over. Products which consumers would like to be able to refill include toiletries, laundry products, dried foods and cleaning products.

Commenting on the findings, City to Sea founder Natalie Fee said: “Customers are rightly upset at having to choose between the cost to their wallets and the cost to the planet. We know that the public still cares about plastic pollution and wants to do more but retailers and brands just aren’t making it accessible or affordable for us.

“We need big brands, businesses and retailers to take action to prevent plastic pollution by reducing single-use packaging and investing in reuse and refill systems – and we need governments around the world to hold them to account.”

Refill – not yet a revolution

There are now a host of national and international initiatives which brands can join to increase their ambitions on packaging sustainability, with consumers having placed much pressure on grocery and FMCG retailers and manufacturers since Blue Planet 2 first aired in October 2017. Updated scientific research, changing policy, changing investor sentiment and the UN’s work on a global plastics treaty are also spurring businesses to act.

But research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, tracking the progress of its New Plastics Economy Commitment, found that many businesses are failing to scale – or even trial – refill or reuse. Progress is much more advanced in terms of material substitution and keeping plastics, but improving their recyclability.

The Commitment had 63 corporate signatories as of November 2021. The Foundation found that more than half are using no refillable or reusable packaging at all. Similarly, back in 2020, the Foundation stated that just 2% of the products sold by the world’s biggest consumer goods firms came in reusable packaging.

Dame Ellen MacArthur has said that she is “alarmed” at the lack of corporate investment in reuse.

Collaborative approach

City to Sea is perhaps best known for its ‘Refill’ campaign – an example of how businesses and other organisations can collaborate to scale refill options which are either free or affordable for consumers.

Under the campaign, businesses are asked to provide free water bottle refills or to provide other incentives for refill, and to signpost that they are doing so with in-store stickers and online mapping. The campaign has seen more than 300,000 venues across the world listing themselves as ‘Refill’ locations, including big-name retailers, transport hubs and independent food-to-go outlets.

Under ‘Refill’, a new city-wide returnable coffee cup scheme will be launching this week, as part of a partnership between City to Sea and environmental compliance scheme Ecosurety.

Retailers participating in the scheme will be able to order and stock reusable cups on a subscription basis. The cups will each have their own QR codes. Consumers making use of the cups will have their codes scanned by the retailer, digitally transferring ownership to them. When customers are done with the cups, they can return them to a participating retailer and have them scanned back in, ready for washing and reuse.

The idea of the scheme is to help people to reuse when they don’t have access to a reusable cup. A common issue is people forgetting their reusable cups at home. The scheme will operate on a pilot basis and learnings will be used to design similar schemes for other cities in England.

Ecosurety’s chief executive Will Ghali said: “This initiative is a fantastic opportunity to accelerate a shift in consumer behaviour by making it easy for people to use refillable cups when they are on the go. It is through these collaborations that we will continue to demonstrate our commitment to finding viable and tangible solutions to the challenges that packaging waste poses to the environment.

“Alongside the introduction of the mandatory take-back of disposable cups by 2024, we believe that reusable cup schemes have an important role to play in reducing disposable packaging waste at the point of sale and helping people to reduce their carbon footprint and the amount of packaging they use.”

Elsewhere, London will once again be the UK’s main hub for World Refill Day advertising, with partners including shopping centre operator Westfield and Transport for London. There are more than 4,000 ‘Refill’ listed water bottle stations across London, with the first having been added in 2018. Nonetheless, surveying from City to Sea has found that 25% of Londoners buy at least two single-use plastic water bottles every week.

This year’s campaign will highlight the availability of places to access free drinking water, with consumer research having revealed that key challenges include the discomfort of asking businesses for water without making a purchase.

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