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How sustainable is refillable packaging really on repeat
On Repeat

How sustainable is refillable packaging really?

‘Refillable’ is the latest sustainability buzzword in the beauty industry, but did you know you generally need to repurchase an item five times before there is a meaningful reduction? Sophie Benson does an investigative deep dive into the topic

Since Zero Waste Week struck a number on beauty and personal care’s packaging impact in 2018 – estimating that more than 120 billion units of cosmetic packaging were made that year – the industry has been clamouring to show that it’s tackling its wasteful ways. The most logical way to do that is to switch single-use for multi-use, and subsequently refills have grown from a fringe option you’d see in a crunchy independent store to prestige must-have. Everyone from Le Labo to Fenty now offer refills, and on the surface it seems that it can only be a good thing. But given that sustainability is one giant grey area, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the topic. 

Like all packaging, refills come in many different forms and it’s impossible to make a blanket declaration that they are all ‘sustainable’. Sticking with the two aforementioned brands for a minute, Le Labo’s 10ml travel tube refills are designed to sit inside a metal refillable tube, while Fenty’s Hydra Vizor SPF refill is a tube and pump that sits within a refillable plastic casing. Le Labo’s tubes are likely too small to be recycled and the pump system, which is made from a mixture of materials, can’t be recycled either. The Fenty product is just slightly smaller than usual plastic tube, complete with pump, and the product page makes no mention of it being recyclable. They are functionally near-identical to a single-use product – they just sit in a fancy receptacle – and will likely end up as waste too. So you have to ask, what’s the point? Le Labo’s other refill systems – either sending your bottle back to be refilled or refilling in store – make much more sense because they’re not dependent on the production of more plastic bottles.

Fiils banked on a reduction of plastic for its refill solution, using flexible plastic pouches to refill aluminium bottles. “The reason I’ve gone for pouches is I had a full carbon analysis and a lifecycle analysis done with the product. There’s 80 per cent less plastic in [our pouches]… and on average customers will save around 36 per cent carbon emissions per year if they use our product,” says Anna Priadka, CEO and founder of the brand. She also explains that the lightweight nature of the pouches reduces shipping emissions as you can ship more product in less space. Fiils reuses its spouts and caps and sends the pouches to Terracycle for recycling using its Zero Waste Box system.

“Due to their complex material makeup, refill pouches cannot be recycled through traditional means like council-led kerbside collections and the infrastructure to widely recycle these waste streams chemically does not exist yet in the UK,” says Sam Angel of Terracycle. Priadka says that between 79 per cent and 81 per cent of Fiils customers return their packaging for recycling. Once they reach Terracycle, the pouches, which are made from a mixture of plastic and aluminium, are turned into pellets which are then used to make plastic products “such as outdoor furniture, construction applications and more”, according to Angel. 

The pouch solution, used widely by a variety of brands including Ouai, Kerastase, Dermalogica, Elemis and Dove, is contentious, however. “I remember when we launched the brand and we had a whole host of [people] who just absolutely slandered us all over our posts, really bashing us and saying that the pouches are still plastic. And then you’ve got that other host of customers who are really supportive and totally get it,” says Priadka. 

Certainly, refill pouches do reduce plastic and some brands, like Fiils, are investing extra time and money to ensure they are recycled. But it’s understandable why the continued reliance on fossil-fuel based plastics during a climate emergency is contested, and even if the pouches are being sent to Terracycle, there are questions about the efficiency of its system. There have been accounts of Terracycle’s collected waste showing up at an incineration site in Bulgaria (which the company chalked up to a third party human error), other investigations have alleged that packaging has been tracked to landfills (although Terracycle says the metal tracker would have been removed from the plastic and landfilled separately), and in 2021, the company settled a lawsuit by agreeing to adjust its language to reflect the limitations of its offering. This isn’t to say Terracycle doesn’t recycle otherwise unrecyclable materials, but it’s by no means a perfect solution that we can rely upon for a zero-waste future.

In 2021 global plastic production rose to more than 390 million tonnes, and less than 10 per cent (just five per cent in the US) is ever recycled. Recycling has its place, and someone must try to do something with what’s classed as unrecyclable, but it should be the last resort, not the first option. It’s often forgotten that reduce, reuse, recycle is supposed to be implemented in the order it’s written.

For her part, Priadka knows pouches are a solution for now, not forever, and she’s currently working on a fully home-compostable product which would take the unknowns of recycling out of the equation entirely. One company already in the business of compostable refills is On Repeat, a postal packaging fulfilment service for beauty brands which uses compostable films to package liquid, powder and balm refills. It’s a pretty revolutionary system but the company is aware of its limitations. 

“The important part is what happens to the materials when they’ve been used. We were talking to a brand in Singapore… but they said there’s no garden waste collection there and the composting uptake at home isn’t there either. So, in that environment this wouldn’t be a suitable solution. [In the UK], consumers have the option to compost the film at home, or it’s certified for industrial composting which means you can put it in your garden waste collection. You have more options,” says co-founder Benjamin Proctor.

“We spent about 18 months in research and development trying to find a film which could hold aqueous product because its very nature is that it’s not designed to be used with these sorts of products,” he continues. The team succeeded but customers are advised to decant the product within five days to avoid moisture loss. This means it’s a brilliant solution for postal refills but not for on-the-shelf.

The general rule is that a customer will need to repurchase an item five times before there is a meaningful reduction in materials use and carbon emissions.

For stable, on-the-shelf refills, Jo Chidley, co-founder of Beauty Kitchen and new company Reposit, is betting on pre-fills: you get a pre-filled product, use the product, return the packaging, and grab another pre-filled product off the shelf. “The majority of investment today in the circular economy has been directed at reducing the weight of packaging, making it more recyclable, having refills, having pouches. But [it’s about] being less bad, rather than really being truly circular. And that‘s really where we come into play,” says Chidley. 

The concept is already in action in certain M&S stores, where customers can grab a homecare product off the shelf in a refillable aluminium container and return empties to the collection point. “It‘s the milkman model, the difference being… that every piece of packaging is asset tracked,” says Chidley. That not only means that you can track where and when a bottle was filled and how many times it’s been refilled but, in future should the ambitious vision come to fruition, a shopper could drop their packaging off at any dedicated point anywhere across the country (in a dream world they would be as common as post boxes). Their deposit will then automatically go back into the system for their next pre-filled purchase. No trekking back between multiple shops to return packaging, no refill spills, no extra dispensary packaging, just a single, joined-up system. 

Though Reposit has several high-profile partnerships coming down the line, Chidley admits that this holistic system is still a long way off, so what do we do in the meantime? According to cosmetic packaging sales director Allison Kent-Gunn (who you likely know as Allison Turquoise), brands have to be more savvy and selective about the solutions they’re picking and know their consumer well.

“The success of a refill system is truly dependent on customer behaviour,” says Kent-Gunn. The general rule, she explains, is that a customer will need to repurchase an item five times before there is a meaningful reduction in materials use and carbon emissions, and as customer loyalty is so low, that’s a tall order. This major caveat to the success of refillable packaging even prompted Allure to stop describing products as refillable unless they were also telling readers how many times they need to refill it “in order to appreciably reduce packaging waste”. In some cases, that number could be up to 100 times, says the publication.

“A lot of times, [refillable packaging] actually creates more waste initially,” Kent-Gunn continues. “With these refill cartridges or pods, because the point of them is to reduce the [volume] of materials used, oftentimes they’re not as durable in transportation so brands have to invest more in secondary packaging for refill systems to ensure they don’t arrive damaged.”

There is also a real need for brands to communicate much more transparently about the refills, which is what prompted Kent-Gunn to start addressing it on social media. Both Kent-Gunn and Priadka allude to the fact that many consumers are still largely driven by aesthetics and won’t accept a dented aluminium bottle or would rather buy a new blush compact than use an old scratched one. If education can drive demand, as Kent-Gunn believes it can, then perhaps practical and environmental factors can start to compete meaningfully with aesthetic ones.

There are so many variables at play that it’s going to be a long journey towards a truly circular system, but there is one certainty: refillable packaging is not made equal and is not inherently sustainable. We should pay as much attention to the specifics of our packaging as we do to the formulations inside them.