Ditch Disposables and join the Choose Reuse movement.

Happy World Refill Day! With growing concerns about single-use packaging, it’s time for consumers to choose reuse and refill systems over throwaway convenience.


As Plastic-Free July approaches you may be assessing your reusable options for those summer days out, takeaway treats and trips to the shops [1].  A little bit of organisation can go a long way to ditching disposables, whether it’s plastic or paper, and before long can become habitual and unobtrusive.  However, the range and options of packaging can be overwhelming, and at Fidra we have devised a packaging hierarchy to help with this (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Fidra packaging hierarchy: order of preference is from the top (No packaging – most preferred) down © Fidra

Avoiding single-use

The best option is to have no packaging – try having an ice-cream in a cone, for example, or putting a loose fruit or vegetable item in your basket. Do you need your bananas in a bag? If no packaging is not a practical option, reuse and refill systems are increasing both in accessibility and availability. There have long been less conventional shops offering services such as laundry liquid refills and loose food options, either in your own packaging that you bring along or in returnable reusable containers. A search around social media is likely to find examples near you, and there are also apps appearing which list them. An example is the refill app by City to Sea, which can be added to by individuals and businesses alike, to show you nearby businesses that offer refill and reuse services[2]. More and more takeaway food and drink businesses are offering reuse systems where a returnable container is provided to the customer, sometimes for a small refundable deposit.  Examples are the Shrewsbury Cup[3], which requires a returnable deposit of £1 for a reusable drink cup, and a trial taking place in Flintshire, Wales, with several businesses serving takeaway meals in returnable metal containers[4].  The Shrewsbury Cup scheme has seen use of reusable takeaway drink cups increase from approximately 5% to 50% of takeaway hot beverage sales, indicating a high level of success. The expansion of similar schemes globally, such as reCIRCLE[5] and RECUP[6] in Europe, and GO Box[7] in the USA, show there is a strong appetite for these types of solutions.

Going mainstream

Reuse and refill systems of household products used on a day to day basis are being trialled by large mainstream companies, suggesting they could become more normal and less niche.  Trials by Tesco in association with Loop[8], and by Unilever with Asda[9], have all proved successful. For the Loop system, brand products are delivered to your home in a reusable Loop Tote, with empties collected and refilled at a later date (Figure 2).  For the Unilever system, shoppers purchase pre-filled reusable bottles from stores and return them in store at a later date.

Figure 2. Loop refill system © Loop

These examples are all showing that reuse and refill are feasible. But are they actually environmentally better? There are concerns that the resources required to make more robust packaging could outweigh the benefits of reuse, for example by using more material and with the extra weight requiring more energy to transport it. However, research shows that once reuse and refill are factored in, such packaging performs better than single-use packaging in terms of global warming impact and land use[10].   In fact, it only took 2 uses of a reusable takeaway food container, the “Luxembourg Box” to break even with the global-warming potential of equivalent single-use containers.

If it has to be one use, make it recyclable or compostable

There are times and situations where single-use is unavoidable, in which case what is the best scenario? Fidra’s packaging hierarchy rates single-use packaging under three levels, with the best option being recyclable or compostable. The recycling of materials can have its issues, for example paper or board packaging that is conventionally easy to recycle may be rejected from the recycling stream if it is contaminated with food, contains inks and other chemicals that are undesirable in the recycled product, or have plastic or similar coatings that are cannot be easily removed.

Compostable packaging seems ideal for food in particular, and for wider products as biodegradable waste is more widely collected. However, there are a range of categories that come under the term, demanding caution when considering compostable options. First of all, similar terminology such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘degradable’ and ‘oxo-degradable’ just means that a product will break down, which could be into harmful components, for example plastic breaking down into microplastics. To be rated as compostable, packaging must meet either a standard for home composting or industrial composting, and be labelled accordingly (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Home compost label and industrial composting standard EN13432 label.

Most compostable products are intended for industrial composting, in which case they will not break down in home compost, or in the environment if discarded. Many compostable products are plasticized and therefore act in the same way as fossil-fuel based plastics, including persisting in the environment as litter. Unfortunately the infrastructure in the UK to collect and process compostable packing industrially is very poor, with the result that much of it is destined for landfill. While this is being addressed in some cases, such as Vegware’s Close the Loop system, there is still a long way to go[11]. As many compostable items are manufactured from waste products, they are preferable over single-use products made from virgin fossil-fuel plastics that cannot be recycled. This is represented by ‘Single-use compostable’ in Fidra’s packaging hierarchy.

Beware chemicals

The use of chemical coatings is of concern with compostable packaging as well as paper and board products, in particular the use of PFAS (per or polyfluorinated alkyl substances) which make materials grease- or water-proof. PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals some of which are known to be toxic to wildlife and humans. This group consists of over 4000 chemicals which are extremely persistent in the environment, with the result that they will bioaccumulate (build up) in our bodies and those of wildlife. Not all packaging has coatings of PFAS, showing that their use is not essential. Wherever possible we should be choosing packaging that is free from PFAS[12].

Bottom of the class

Single-use disposable products that cannot be recycled or composted are Fidra’s least favoured option in the packaging hierarchy. Examples are sachets or pouches, that are often made of several layers of different materials including fossil-fuel based plastics. Neither recyclable or compostable, these are only destined for landfill.

Choose to Reuse

The availability of alternatives to single-use disposable packaging is increasing, and the range of recyclable and compostable options is growing. As consumers we can use our personal choices to vote with our feet and wallets for more sustainable options.  Next time you are shopping, take a moment to consider the packaging being used, and if possible make a choice based on Fidra’s packaging hierarchy. You can also sign up to support Break Free From Plastic’s #WeChooseReuse campaign[14]. As we continue to live with the coronavirus pandemic there are understandable concerns over the hygiene of reuse and refill systems. However, as we addressed in a previous blog[13], over 100 scientists from 18 countries signed a joint letter outlining the evidence to show that ‘reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene’[15]. There is really no excuse, it’s time to join the refill revolution and #ChooseReuse[16].

[1] https://www.plasticfreejuly.org/

[2] https://www.refillapp.com/

[3] http://www.shrewsburycup.co.uk/

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-57454450.amps

[5] rhttps://www.recircle.ch/en/

[6] Rhttps://recup.de/

[7] https://goboxpdx.com/

[8] https://loopstore.co.uk/

[9] https://www.edie.net/news/5/Unilever-unveils-new-UK-refillable-packaging-trials/?adfesuccess=1

[10] Greenwood, S.C. et al (2021) Many Happy Returns: Combining insights from the environmental and behavioural sciences to understand what is required to make reusable packaging mainstream. Sustainable Production and Consumption, 27, 1688-1702. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352550921000956

[11] https://vegware-development.myshopify.com/pages/close-the-loop

[12] https://www.pfasfree.org.uk/current-initiatives/pfas-free-products

[13] https://www.fidra.org.uk/environmental-impacts-of-coronavirus/

[14] https://wechoosereuse.org/

[15] Health Expert Statement Addressing Safety of Reusables and COVID-19 (2020). https://storage.googleapis.com/planet4-international-stateless/2020/06/26618dd6-health-expert-statement-reusables-safety.pdf

[16] https://www.fidra.org.uk/projects/food-packaging/#1575462097088-b4576708-5332

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