Is It Sustainable to Offer a Packaging Returns or Refill Service?

When returns packaging is mentioned, the first example that comes to mind is the less mainstream grocery services. Fruit and veg boxes, for example, where you can enjoy an array of produce delivered weekly to your door, usually in reusable packaging. Many of these services request you leave empty boxes and the packaging within, outside your door on the day of your next delivery for them to reuse or recycle. 

However, there’s a new dawn of returns packaging and refill services that claim to have a much better impact on the environment than just buying products in glass or plastic bottles and then recycling or refilling them yourselves. But are these types of packaging returns sustainable for the environment and is it financially viable for the businesses offering such services?

It’s difficult really to argue that reusing items is not the best way to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment. The trouble is that it’s difficult for businesses to help us do so. Refill shops are becoming more popular and as they were classed as “essential retail” by the government during the UK’s lockdown, they have increased in popularity.

Refilling though is almost exclusively targeted at local customers who can pop to their local highstreet, armed with plastic (or glass) bottles to top them up, paying only for the product, rather than the packaging too. More refill businesses are starting to offer delivery services though, inviting customers to order online and they will send in reusable or recyclable packaging. If reusable or not possible to recycle at home, customers can send back the packaging in a pre-paid envelope to be refilled for their next order.

There are lots of challenges with this model though. 

Firstly, it’s expensive for retailers to include a pre-paid returns envelope in every order and besides, what if a customer sends back a number of returns, exceeding the weight you’ve paid for? You could end up with some unexpected expenses from your postage provider. 

Second, how will your business ensure the returns are refilled or recycled properly when they arrive back at the warehouse? Recycling schemes such as Terracycle, can be expensive if the packaging is not regular recyclable materials. If refilling, you will probably need to invest in cleaning and refill machinery to sterilise the packaging properly and refill before sending back.

This leads me to the importance of being 100% transparent. It’s not enough, as a business, to claim you are sustainable. You have to explain how. If you request packaging is returned to you then what are you doing with it? How does that compare to the customer placing it in their own recycling box? If you’re dropping by to refill my shampoo bottles and floor cleaner then how are you keeping the travel carbon neutral? 

It’s important always to remember why we are looking at packaging returns. What’s the aim? Predominantly, to keep materials out of landfill. Reducing waste. So, what is the one thing we have to do in order to return packaging or reuse it? We have to look after it. Often keeping cardboard boxes for a week or two, or taking better care of our product containers so that they may be reused or refilled. Ironically, we’re learning what our parents no doubt told us over and over again when we were kids – to look after our things. Arguably, the biggest change we can make for the environment is to treat our items with respect. It’s that old ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy that is making a well-deserved comeback.

So, whilst signing up to ethical businesses and posting back your packaging just keep checking in with yourself and asking if it’s really an item/service you really need, and as a brand, are you ensuring it’s as easy as possible for customer to return or recycle packaging and thus, to reduce waste and the pressure on the environment.