Lorax EPI

The Big Refill Debate
by Jennifer Brook at 11:40 in Circular Economy, Emerging, Environmental

​What is better for the planet – reusing our water bottles and food containers, or recycling them to make new ones? We should make less plastic in general – but how do we manage the plastic we already have and the current needs of the consumer?

The refill vs recycling debate has been going on for years, and producers have found different ways to meet customer's needs, whilst trying to help the planet. Now, this is going to be regulated. The European Union is in the process of bringing in mandatory reuse targets through their proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) for certain types of transport packaging, and refill targets for retailers who provide take-away food and drink.

In this blog, we're going to look at some of the basic ideas behind the debate. Refill is becoming regulated, to speed along our protection of the planet – so which one is better, refill or recycling?


Refill over recycling

  • Refilling and washing a product could use less energy than breaking down that product back to its molecular level and transforming it into something else.
  • You can recycle products down to the material level and use that as recycled content for other products – but that doesn't often work when making food contact products, due to food safety regulations.
  • Refill is handy in coffee shops; providing china cups for dine-in, and asking customers to bring their own reusable cups for take-away. However, many customers won't bring their own cup because they don't want to carry it home and wash it – a potential solution could be to offer washing services on site. Alternatively, lots of cafes offer a discount for people who bring their own cup.
  • Carrying a reusable water bottle or heat-protected cup has become a lot more popular in recent years, lots of people carry their own bottle or mug. Its all about gradually changing public behaviour.

Recycling over refill

  • Think about reusable food containers in a return system. Taking them to a drop-off point, transporting to a washing facility, washing, re-packaging and transporting back to the consumer takes a lot of energy. That's a lot of water, detergent, and fresh packaging and fuel for the consumer to reuse that container again.
  • We already have a lot of waste plastic packaging on the planet – we must think about making less, but in the meantime, it's necessary to process and recycle what we already have.
  • We can recycle products to make other products, such as bottles into a fleece coat. Even better, if you recycle it back into the same type of product, a key example being milk bottles into more milk bottles, you can be sure they're food safe.
  • On the other hand, how do we know that the milk bottle wasn't used at home to make a volcano model for a science project, and then recycled?... Packaging could always have been contaminated and will still need cleaning as part of the recycling process.

So which is better?

Different approaches are needed in different situations, it's all about finding the balance. Refillable water bottles are great, but they have become the go-to give-away for lots of companies trying to promote their eco-friendly attitudes – and now we have too many piling up in our kitchen cupboards.

Each company has their own approach, but with the PPWR listing certain reuse and refill targets which have to be met, businesses will need to find ways to adapt their products to meet both ends.

If you would like to find out more about the PPWR or the thought process behind it, contact one of our consultants at Lorax EPI today.

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