Refill caps are lightweight refill units for glass jars. Photo: Papacks
Refill and Reuse
16.03.2022 - Most packaging is still single-use, destined to be thrown away after. However, a change in this trend is emerging: In addition to improved recycling possibilities and the increasing use of recycled materials, new reuse and refill systems are becoming increasingly attractive as alternatives to single-use packaging.
Reusable systems with refundable deposits have a long history of success in Germany when it comes to beverages such as water, soft drinks and beer. However, according to recent demands of the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt, UBA), the plan is to also significantly increase the reusable solutions on offer in other areas, such as the mail order and food-to-go sectors. By contrast, in the cosmetics and household cleaning product markets, refill systems are to ensure less packaging waste and save transport and logistics costs. Environmentally conscious start-ups are contributing smart new ideas to this market, but large manufacturers have also been offering refillable solutions for quite some time. The most recent example: a recycled stand-up pouch made of mono-material developed by Mondi for the Henkel brand Pril. This refillable product supplements the brand’s PET pump dispensers and is expected to translate to 70 percent less plastic per use.
However, refillable solutions are more than just recyclable refill packs. (Re)filling stations for products may still be rare, but supermarkets and chemist’s such as Alnatura, dm, Kaufland and Aldi have already begun testing packaging-free stations in some of their stores to find out whether customers will accept the option of bringing their own bottles or bags to fill. Nowadays, you can also purchase cosmetics, cleaning products, detergents and washing-up liquids as well as dry food without packaging. You can either bring your own containers or buy them in the store.
Food-to-go is a trend that has increased noticeably in the past few years. Starting in 2023, businesses in the gastronomy sector will also have to offer reusable solutions for food-to-go, as stipulated by the German Packaging Law. There have long been suppliers for such systems, for example Vytal in Cologne and Recup in Munich.
Vytal’s reusable container without a deposit can be booked using an app. Photo: Vytal
Since the beginning of 2022, Vytal has been advertising its reusable system with a poster campaign. More than 2,000 partners offer food in the reusable containers for takeaway or delivery. The containers are returned to the restaurants, to return boxes in super markets or via quick commerce services. The Vytal system is free of charge and deposits for users and is financed through fees that the gastronomy businesses pay each time they fill up a container. Users can rent the reusable containers using a QR code in the Vytal app. They have to be returned within fourteen days, otherwise they are regarded as purchased; the bowl costs ten euros and the cup costs four euros.
By contrast, Recup, founded in 2016 in Munich, uses a deposit system for its Recup and Rebowl containers. Currently, there are 10,000 pick-up and drop-off points throughout Germany, and 1,000 more are planned. Cafés, restaurants, company catering, petrol stations, kiosks and snack bars are participating in the programme. In addition, there are currently test phases underway with various suppliers in the food delivery sector. The deposit system works without registration or entering data: For a deposit of five euros, customers receive their take-away food in a Rebowl, and they get the money back upon return of the Rebowl. The containers consist of recyclable polypropylene (PP), are free of BPA and non-toxic, are made in Germany and can be reused approximately 200 to 500 times.
McDonald’s is currently testing a proprietary reusable system for in-house and to-go dining in ten selected restaurants in Germany; the rollout in all its restaurants nationwide is planned for the end of 2022. The fast food corporation also hopes to set an early course for alternative packaging solutions that save on plastic, before the statutory obligation for reusable containers comes into effect in 2023. A one euro deposit is charged per package, and the deposit is paid back in full upon returning the container in the participating test restaurants.
Stand-up pouches and bags-in-boxes for shampoo and co. Photo: Vema
Refillable solutions: thinking outside the box
Refilling systems for cosmetics and cleaning products are well established, but unprecedented innovative solutions keep hitting the market. For example, the Swabian company Vema uses stand-up pouches with taps and bags-in-boxes – previously mainly used for wines or juices – for cosmetics and cleaning products, thus positioning itself as the first supplier in this area. The integrated tap closes in an airtight manner, thus preventing contamination and germ formation.
Likewise for the cosmetics sector, there is now an environmentally friendly refill system for jars made of glass or plastic that is reminiscent of coffee capsules. Packaging manufacturer Papacks offers refill caps that consist of cellulose and are coated with an organic barrier. The sustainable capsules are produced using the Cologne company’s refined pulp moulding technology and can be disposed of as waste paper or as biowaste or compost.
The Japanese consumer goods manufacturer Kao offers most of its products as refill systems. For consumers in Japan, it’s simply part of daily life to buy liquid soap, shampoo and household cleaning products in thin foil bags and then pour them into dispensers at home or use a special attachment to turn the refill units into directly usable primary packaging. Kao also backs refillable solutions with its British brand Molton Brown, for example with refill packaging for hand soap and refillable glass bottles, or even with a refill service for its original perfume bottles.
A world premiere: organic coffee in reusable bottles with flavour lock lids. Photo: Cofi Loco
Organic coffee in reusable bottles
The coffee roasting house Cofi Loco in Siegburg has shown that reusable solutions in the food sector needn’t be limited to drinks and dairy products. They pack their freshly roasted coffee into a sustainable, reusable brown bottle. The glass bottle’s unique selling point is a specially developed lid with a flavour vent, which Cofi Loco has filed as a registered design. The bottles are filled with coffee directly after it is roasted, and then sealed with the flavour lock lids.
Universities are also coming up with smart new ideas for reusable solutions. One example is ReWrap, a silicone wrapper for food to go. The young designer Sarah Klein developed this product during her course of studies in sustainable design at the ecosign/Akademie für Gestaltung (academy for design) in Cologne and received the young talent award MehrWert NRW for her work in 2021. ReWrap is flexible and can be folded or wrapped, is made of long-lasting material and is food-safe, dishwasher-safe and recyclable. It’s so simple to use and manufacture that switching to this reusable product is extremely easy for consumers. The concept features a deposit system, but consumers can also purchase the packaging and take it with them over and over. With its silicone rubber properties, the material is supposed to withstand up to 4,000 food-and-return cycles before being recycled.
FairFood Freiburg was recently awarded the reuse innovation prize by Environmental Action Germany and Initiative Mehrweg (Reuse Initiative Foundation). It is the first company in Germany to use a climate-friendly reusable system for foodstuffs that are not dairy products, offering nut butters, nuts and dried fruit in standard reusable jars previously only used for yoghurt and similar products.
The silicone wrapper ReWrap is food-safe, dishwasher-safe and recyclable. (Image: Sarah Klein)
Online retailers also testing reusable solutions
Reusable systems can lead to a great deal of savings on packaging materials in the shipping sector. In the past year, the research project Praxpack examined whether and how reusable shipping bags could be economically feasible in everyday practice for mail order businesses. The pilot test, which involved approximately 14,000 reusable shipping backs from the Finnish supplier Repack, was carried out together with the partners Avocado Store, Otto and Tchibo.
Repack’s shipping bags, made of 100 percent recycled polypropylene, could be sent back to the shipper, either with returned goods or empty, and then used again. The high rates of return together with returned goods were initially promising. However, the results for empty returns was somewhat less impressive. Overall, too few empty bags were returned to achieve a good environmental balance. There was also criticism of the fact that the Repack shipping bags were sent back to Tallinn in Estonia, which is currently the company’s only location for processing the bags. Customers regarded this as not particularly environmentally sustainable.
The robust, lightweight reusable box from Hey Circle in Munich is still being tested. The plan is for parcel services to use the boxes to transport goods from online retailers to customers, and then for customers to return the boxes via dedicated parcel shops. In the medium term, the company plans to use an alternative returns system where empty boxes can also be handed in at chemist’s, supermarkets or dedicated microhubs.
The Repack reusable shipping bag made of polypropylene can be used at least 20 times. Photo: Repack