Since the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II put the environmental impacts of our plastic laden diet on our screens in 2017, there has been a huge surge in people actively seeking to reduce or remove single-use straws, takeaway coffee cups and other plastic items from their lives. This led to a new interest in refill stores – where you could go plastic packaging free and fill paper bags, or your own containers with a multitude of dry goods and liquids. Small chains, or often independent stores, new versions of the ‘scoop and save’ refill shops of the 80’s began to multiply across the UK (and elsewhere on the globe)… and the supermarkets were watching.
To some, the increase in popularity of the small refill store has been one of the biggest shake-ups to the dominance of the supermarket when we think about how we buy our food. With more of a push-back against packaging, the supermarket, with it’s wall to wall plastic wrapping, quickly became the opposite of what people wanted to see in their basket – and their bin.
So it was not surprising when supermarket chains began to announce their own ‘trial’ additions to stores for sustainable, plastic free, or refill style shopping. In one of the first ‘dedicated’ drives by supermarkets to incorporate plastic free shopping, Waitrose partnered with Unpacked in 2019, adding a new refill section to its Botley Road store in Oxford. Before the trial had even finished, the scheme (which is said to remove 98% of the packaging that would have been on the product) proved so successful that it was rolled out to an additional 2 stores.
Part of the success of this refill trial at Waitrose was the inclusion of named brands, such as Ecover, which customers knew and the availability of items not always seen in smaller refill stores, like alcohol. With glowing comments from customers, it is quite likely that more refill sections will be popping up in more Waitrose branches over the coming year.
However, it is not just Waitrose who are taking on the refill revolution. Morrisons also began trialling refill sections in 3 stores in 2019, Marks and Spencers have expanded their refill offerings to 11 stores and in early June 2021, Asda announced that they were opening another 4 refill sections in stores after a successful trial in Middleton, Leeds. With a strong partnership with Unilever, the Middleton store offered customers names they knew too, with PG Tips teabags, Persil laundry detergent, Radox shower gel and even Pepsi available for refilling. Susan Thomas, Asda’s director of commercial sustainability reported that sales of many unpackaged versions outstripped their packaged counterparts.
Even Tesco has partnered with US founded refill delivery service, Loop, to bring customers brands they know in stainless steel and glass containers.
So what does this mean for the original, smaller refill stores? Some worry that the adoption of refill by the larger players on the field will push independent refill stores from the High Street – offering those ‘appealing’ household brands and potentially lower prices to customers. Will we see refilling stores go the same way as the smaller grocery stores? I think not.
At the moment there are many barriers to people adopting a plastic free lifestyle, even in part. Firstly, heading to a smaller refill store as well as doing their weekly ‘shop’ in a supermarket is just too much of a strain on time for some. Sometimes, plastic free shopping is more expensive, as there are not the ‘buy one get one free’ offers like those in supermarkets. Also, it remains the fact that many people have just not considered refilling – as they don’t see it in the way they are used to shopping. If refill sections are added to more supermarkets, it will likely encourage more customers to try it as part of their usual shop. If it is easy, people will try. And who knows – maybe if they catch the refill bug they will seek out other, smaller refill stores to find new items to stock up on.
Surely we just need more people refilling and reducing their reliance on single-use packaging. From large supermarkets to smaller high street independents – every refill store is a step in a better direction, and a step away from pointless packaging.