When people think of reusable packaging, they usually think of refillable drinks bottles – but there are many other types of reusable packaging.
In Europe, the market share of refillable drinks bottles has been falling while the market share of reusable business-to-business packaging has been growing.
That is because reusable packaging performs best when return rates are high, distribution distances are low and markets are stable. Where these conditions are absent, single-trip, recyclable packaging is better both environmentally and economically.
Reusable packaging, like all types of packaging, has environmental pros and cons. If it is used in the right circumstances it can be the best option, if not it can be the worst.
Packaging for refilling at home and in-store
There are a number of types of packaging that often reused at home - biscuit tins, coffee jars, tea-caddies, pots for herbs, tins or boxes for laundry detergent.
This is highly resource-efficient, since the "refill pack” can be a lightweight pouch that uses low energy and materials for production and distribution and generates less waste after use.
According to the government, the most widely reused type of packaging in the home is the thin plastic carrier bag. Over 85% of people say they reuse them for carrying groceries again, as bin liners, sandwich bags and a wide range of other uses.
The Body Shop used to offer a shampoo refill service with a 10% price reduction but discontinued it in 2002 because it was used by only 1% of its customers. However consumer interest in packaging and environmental impact has increased since then and ASDA is trialing an in-store refill system for a range of fabric conditioners and some foods such as coffee beans in 5 of its stores to see if consumers want to use it.
Refillable drinks bottles
The effective operation of refillable systems is not dependent on deposits. One of the most successful systems over the years has been the British doorstep milk delivery system and that has worked without a deposit.
Milk production is local, and as transport distances are short, the extra weight and bulk from using heavy refillable bottles does not have much environmental impact. With short distances between stops, slow electric vehicles are practicable, and no special journeys are needed to return the empties to the depot. As demand is stable throughout the year, producers do not have to keep a large float of bottles for seasonal peaks.
There is no need to charge a deposit, as producers do not need to offer an incentive to get their bottles back. All householders have to do is to put the empties out on the doorstep for collection.
But return rates, and sales, are in decline as a result of social changes. Doorstep delivery no longer fits with the way that many people live. Often there is nobody at home during the day, and rather than leave the milk outside to spoil or get stolen, people buy it in non-refillable containers from the supermarket on their way to or from work or as part of their weekly shop.
In other European countries, refillable bottles are not used for milk, but they are used for beer, water and soft drinks in some countries. Everywhere, though, even in countries where legislation or the tax system has tried to protect them, refillables are in rapid decline.
In 2004, 58% of soft drinks were sold in refillable bottles in Germany; by 2007 this was less than 40%. Similarly 68% of mineral water in 2004 has now dropped to 47%. Only beer sales in refillable bottles held up, still having 86% of the market in 2007. That is largely due to the strength of consumers’ loyalty to their local brewery – the average transport distance for refillable glass bottles in Germany is less than 60 miles.
The advantages and disadvantages of refillable and non-refillable drinks containers are not clear cut. Much depends on transport distances and the return rates achieved. When return is built into business routine a high return rate can be achieved but consumers will only return containers if it is convenient.
Refillables use more material because they have to be stronger and heavier to withstand repeated stresses in filling and handling and they need stronger transport packaging. They are less compact than single use containers so more lorries, with more fuel consumption, are needed to deliver a given amount of drink.
Behind the scenes, there are other environmental disadvantages such as higher use of water and chemicals for bottle washing, and increased land demand to meet storage requirements at the filling plant because a float of containers is needed to allow for peak demand periods. Innovation in bottle design is restricted because new bottles need to run down the same filling lines as those already in circulation.
The cost of setting up a refillable system is expensive and involves:
- rebuilding grocery stores to allow space for bottle returns
- new bottling lines with additional space for bottle-washing machines
- new logistics, storage and administration systems
- sophisticated inspection systems to detect damaged returned containers to avoid breakages on the filling line
If UK suppliers were required to introduce refillable containers this would put them at a competitive disadvantage against imported drinks, unless imports also had to use refillables – in which case many imported drinks would disappear from the UK market.
Refillable soft drink bottles have almost disappeared in the UK, but between a third and a half of the total weight of soft drinks packaging is reusable – the transport packaging used to get the product to the shops.
It was only in 2008 that sales of beer in bottles and cans overtook those of draught beer, which is supplied in refillable kegs and casks. This is a reflection of changing habits as more people now drink at home instead of in pubs.
As well as beer kegs and casks, there are a number of other reusable systems used by businesses such as collapsible cardboard or plastic boxes and trays used for car components and a wide range of other products. These are usually returned to the supplier of the original product.
Other reusable packaging is part of a common pool and does not need to be returned to the supplier of the original product, such as plastic crates for bread, fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, metal, fibreboard or plastic drums used for chemicals and other products, and plastic and wooden pallets.
British Beer & Pub Association, Statistical Handbook 2009.
Glasgow Evening Times, Irn-Bru bottle deposit rises to 30p, 16 July 2008.
GVM, Verbrauch von Getränken in Einweg- under Mehrweg Verpackungen, Berichtsjahr 2007, UBA (German Federal Environment Agency), 2009.
Perchards et al, Study on the progress of the implementation and impact of Directive 94/62/Ec on the functioning of the internal market, European Commission, 2005.
PIRA International Ltd and Ecolas N.V., Study on the implementation of Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste and options to strengthen prevention and reuse of packaging, European Commission, 2005.