Are refills sustainable?

Or are they a temporary stepping stone to the next ‘sustainable’ strategy? If so, can we skip this phase and stop the further waste of materials?
January 25, 2022

At Morrama sustainability is a key part of every project we work on. Working with startups gives us an insight into the market trends that are driving new business, and after the success of our packaging design for UK startup Wild, it’s been exciting to see more and more brands wanting to create refillable products.

The Beauty industry has been named as one of the top offenders for creating plastic waste, estimated at 120 billion units of packaging every year. That's the equivalent of everyone in the UK throwing away 1,818 pieces of beauty packaging a year (120billion/66million).

It’s a heck of a lot of packaging waste from one industry, and most of it is not even recyclable.

Luckily, greater awareness of these numbers are starting to have an impact, showing shifts in consumers habits and expectations of what brands should and could offer 02. 2020 was even named  “the year of refill” (Harper Bazaar.2020) 03.

Refills are a great way to put a product on track towards sustainability. They prolong the use of material value, whilst minimising the new materials needed and lowering transport costs and C02 emissions.

The LCA Centre says that buying a refill instead of a complete product saves 70 per cent CO2, 65% energy and 45% water.” Alongside fostering brand loyalty and repeat purchase through subscriptions.

But not all refills are packaged the same. So as consumer habits change, the question of ‘are their habits really being changed for the best?’ needs to be addressed.

This thought piece explores these questions by analysing a mix of different types of refills and reviewing the sustainability credentials and strategy of them. Overall asking the questions:

1: Are refills just a temporary stepping stone to the next ‘sustainable’ strategy?

2: If so, how should we be thinking about them? And where does the real sustainability lie in refills?

Returnable pouches; taking back control

The classic refill pouch is typically made from a mix of plastics and aluminum. This laminate construction ensures an airtight, leak proof and durable piece of packaging that is low cost and lightweight. In some cases, a paper layer can also be added. The paper gives it a more sustainable aesthetic, but it doesn’t make it any more sustainable, resulting in a high potential for greenwashing. In reality, it is almost impossible to recycle these paper-lined pouches due to the energy required to separate the laminated layers.

Above Bower collective.

The main benefit of pouches is that they require less plastic. The Aussie shampoo refill pouch, for example, uses 60% less plastic than their bottles. However it is still reliant on virgin plastic, and whilst they suggest they are recyclable, the message is confusing. At present Terracycle is the best option for getting a pouch recycled, either via a drop-off-location or a collection scheme set up by the beauty brand. In London there are seven Terracycle drop-off locations, however, in the whole of Wales, there are only five. For other pouches not aligned with Terracycle, it is unclear as to how they should be recycled, or where they can go.

Requiring pouches to be sent back to be recycled is reliant on the behavior of the customer. Brands such as Fiils aim to remove this barrier by providing pre-paid letter-box-friendly envelopes so that users can more easily collect and return their pouches. This method enables Fiils to gain back control of the pouches’ end-life disposal. However, how many do? And how much material is actually reclaimed during the recycling process is hard to say.

This isn’t a pouch-specific problem. Consumers are expected to know the most sustainable method of disposal for all types of packaging, and complex and varying recycling collections inevitably creates complications for recycling to take place

So if we can not readily recycle, is this sustainable strategy any better than sticking to systems we understand, and already use? It begs the question of whether these non-recyclable pouches are creating more complex problems to solve at a later date.

A potential solution to this is seen through the brands including Goodfills and Bower Collective, who follow a similar return system as Fiils, with the exception that when they receive the pouch back they sanitize and reuse those exact pouches for other customers.

“When we receive the pouch, we'll sanitize it and refill it for the next customer”(Good fill 2021).

This is a great example of how a company can design a system to keep their knowledge and control on the product-end-of-life. Ensuring the material value is not lost, the pouch is kept in use for as long as possible, with no confusion for the user.

Agile Aluminium

Aluminium is often perceived and seen as the ‘sustainable’ route for long-lasting reusable containers, food, drinks and within the beauty industry.

For virgin Aluminium it is an extremely energy-intensive process, however, in the UK it is estimated that we recycle 75% of aluminium and using this recycled aluminium requires 95% less energy then using it from a raw material. The material properties lend themselves well for heavy re-use and can be infinitely and readily recycled.

The empty drink can you recycle could pass through the recycling process and be back on sale as a brand new can in just 60 days”. (Alupro 2021). This system works just as efficiently for any other aluminium, so long as there is no composite material.

This extremely fast and efficient material recovery makes it an ideal material for refills. It works both for customers who will want to keep hold and reuse the aluminium bottle, and for those who would prefer to recycle. Working with the consumer's habits, instead of against it, ensures there is no compromise on sustainable credentials.

The brand Sop, based in Norfolk, have decided to use only aluminium as their method of packaging. Simple to use, and a simple process of recycling.  Another example is KanKan, a London based company who transport their refills to customers in quite literally a ‘tin can’.

By using a ubiquitous design such as an aluminium can, we can utilise pre-existing supply chains, systems of use and waste streams that are key to ensure a circular design of life.

- KanKan 2021

By designing with a material and form which fits easily into current and widely available systems, KanKan make the end-of-product-life simple for users, cutting away any unknowns which is often one of the biggest stumbling blocks for getting a material to be recycled.

Reducing plastic

In an attempt to reduce plastic, brands are turning to paper as an alternative. Whilst not touting them as refills brands including L'Oreal have explored bottles made from an inner rpet plastic, with a structural recycled paper pulp wall outer, making it 100% recycled and fully recyclable if separated. The mix of materials allows for a reduction of 60% plastic, the card adds structural support for use of bottles, and transport of the inner plastic.

“Because the shells can be nested and the pouch can be transported flat to an end-user, one truckload of the packaging materials equals nine truckloads of rigid plastic containers”

- Packaging world 2018

However, whilst the paper pulp outer gives off a sustainable perception, manufacturing a bottle like this requires high energy, as there is additional energy required for both parts.

Having a thinner plastic and card wall also does not work well for a closed-loop, send back scheme for reuse. This type of pouch is very much on a trajectory for being recycled as the most sustainable end-of-life option.

Concentrate solution, cut the water

Potentially the most innovative of all the design and material thinking in this thought piece is the concentrate. Ultimately why ship water? This refill method invites the user to be part of the process of creating the refill. Brands such as Kinfill, Aer, Haeckles, and Forgo are leading the way, with pellets, liquid concentrates, sachets, and powders.

Cutting out the water has many direct and indirect advantages; lowering the energy required for shipping, reduces the space needed, lowering the carbon footprint, cutting costs to the business. They can be made small enough to fit through a standard letterbox, cutting further costs for businesses.

Moving from liquid to concentrate opens up a lot more opportunities, as you no longer need plastic. Take Kinfill’s packaging as an example; the concentrate is in glass vials, packaged in card which are posted D2C. They also offer a ‘lasting bottle’ made from glass, but this isn’t required to make the solution at home.

Biodegradable cleaning extracts to blend at home in a lasting bottle of Italian glass

- Kinfill 2021

The vials can be recycled once used, and could quite easily be pushed one step further to a closed-loop, Circular economy, following a similar process to Goodfills. They provide a simple no confusion method of refill, with end-of-product-life thought through.

Similarly, Haeckel's offers their hand wash concentrate in the form of a pellet. These pellets are packaged in a biodegradable mushroom jar, sit back and let the packaging do the work for you, it's an easy no hassle method, creating no waste.

Aer is another great example of a brand making refills 100% waste-free. Their powder arrive in biodegradable sachets, packaged in card, and provide recyclable plastic or glass bottles, with an aluminum foaming pump. They minimise carbon emissions and avoid plastic packaging.

“Natural and sustainable hand soap powder turns into foaming hand soap when it mixes with warm water”

- design boom 2021

These concentrates are by far the least wasteful in terms of materials, transportation, Co2, and external packaging. They stand alone as products thought out and aligned to circular economy thinking and practice, designed for the average customer with the average recycling facilities to hand.

Nevertheless, concentrates are not always a method for everyone and every product. Dry concentrates mixing with water aren’t quite there yet in terms of ideal end result. Aer utilise an aluminium foaming pump to form their foaming hand soap. But to create a smooth gel feel, something that would be expected from a customer for a shower gel or shampoo, is yet to be designed.

Conclusion of thoughts

So what is the most sustainable option? Is it even possible to have a ‘sustainable option’? The key takeaway is that no refill is the same, and no refill should be thought of as a sustainable method straight away.

We are still a way off from refills being the final method of creating a ‘sustainable solution’, but there are definite steps and methods we can skip to prevent further material waste. Material, form, system, and need of refill will all alter the sustainable credentials. These categories should all be considered when deciding on what type of refill to use, alongside how well designed it is for the future, and of gaining control of its end-of-life. T

he single-use plastic pouches are still reducing the plastic content needed, but without clear legislation on how to recycle them, they could be seen as a sustainable stepping stone, yet to reach their full potential. Recycled Aluminium as a method for refills works really well as it caters for different consumer habits and lifestyles, perhaps this could be pushed further as a method which is part of a circular economy, as its material properties are perfect for heavy reuse? There is of course the energy and C02 impact to consider. Reducing plastic content, and using paper pulp for the structure does not lend well for a circular economy model of recapturing material value. It also relies on both customers to separate materials and for those materials to make it to recycling.

So perhaps instead of investing in developing complex ‘paper’ bottles, attention should be placed on investing in the chemistry of concentrates. Concentrates are the most innovative and disruptive area of the refill market. But at present, they still need further innovation to create a conditioner or shampoo which would meet a customer's expectations. As we always say to our clients, let’s not start with the refill container, let’s look at the actual cosmetic and make sure we’re designing around that.


Emma Lacey

Emma is a freelance sustainability consultant and ex-Morrama designer.