There are several ways in which refill-reuse models could work. You can fill up your container at home using refills you buy at a shop or online. You can use an in-store dispensing machine at a large supermarket. You can get your empty containers picked up from home, replenished and delivered back. Or you can return packaging at a store or drop-off point, as part of a deposit-return scheme.
While different options will suit different people and different circumstances, they all pose their own challenges.
From a business perspective, there are various considerations. For example, putting a dispensing machine in a shop or picking up empty packaging to wash, refill and return requires very different distribution and logistics operations that, to work, need to be efficient and economically viable.
Deposit and reward schemes must be carefully thought through to ensure they incentivize the return of packaging without putting consumers off with a high initial deposit. And if we want consumers to return bottles, we need to make sure there are enough drop-off points in the right locations.
But even if business gets this side of the equation sorted, we can’t force consumers to buy into the idea. That's why we need to work with others on this transition. It requires people to change often long-held habits in terms of how they both shop and consume.
Will consumers think it’s too much hassle to clean their containers and take them to a shop to refill them? It’s becoming the norm for us to carry refillable water bottles, but is it a step too far to lug big laundry bottles back and forth?
Will they be tempted by smaller, less impressive looking refill packs that sit alongside full-sized products on the supermarket shelf?
Will they trust that a concentrated refill diluted with water at home really does have the same cleaning power?
As Richard Slater, Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer, explains: “This is a really exciting area and one where we’re aiming to take a leading role. While we’ve been designing potential solutions and experimenting for some time, it’s a new and very different concept for consumers.
“We’re trailing various approaches to tackle the issue, as there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re determined to make a real difference on the plastics challenge, and so we’ll continue to experiment and to test, learn and refine.”