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Reuse. Refill. Rethink. Our progress towards a packaging revolution

We’ve been working on simple sustainable solutions that will help millions of people cut plastic consumption for good. Here’s what we’ve learnt so far.

The need for an absolute reduction in plastic use is abundantly clear. A report by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ – Breaking the Plastic Wave – found that ocean-bound plastic is set to triple by 2040 unless radical action is taken.

But solutions do exist. The same report found that this amount can be reduced by 80% if major transformational change takes place.

So, at Unilever, we’re taking action. We have pledged that by 2025 we will halve the use of virgin plastic in our packaging and remove more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic entirely.

One of the most effective ways to cut the plastic use for good is to shift to reusable packaging. That’s why we have been exploring how to bring refill and reuse solutions to consumers around the world, in an effective, convenient and affordable way.

Sharing what we have learnt from our pilots

With our broad portfolio, we’re well placed to trial a range of refill–reuse models across various product categories and formats, including personal care, beauty, laundry, home, hygiene and food. Since 2018, we have launched over 50 pilots.

As Chief R&D Officer Richard Slater explains: “To tackle the root causes of plastic waste, we need to think differently about packaging. We need bold innovations that challenge existing designs, materials and business models. Our priority is to fundamentally rethink our approach and pave the way for new solutions such as reusable and refillable formats.

“By adopting a ‘test, learn and refine’ mentality, we’re developing innovative solutions that will help people cut their use of plastic for good.”

We need bold innovations that challenge existing designs, materials and business models. Our priority is to fundamentally rethink our approach and pave the way for new solutions such as reusable and refillable formats.

Richard Slater, Chief R&D Officer, Unilever

Refill station

To support an industry-wide shift towards reusable packaging at scale, we’ve carried out a review of all the learnings and insights gained through our pilots.

The key finding is that, as with all packaging solutions, there’s no silver bullet. Instead, a range of refill–reuse models need to be designed, developed and tailored to different consumer segments and geographies.

Refill and Reuse models

Examples of our refill-reuse initiatives

OMO laundry liquid

OMO came up with a 6x concentrated formula designed to be poured into a standard 3-litre bottle. The product proved a hit with consumers when we launched it in Brazil, and we have since rolled it out to other South American countries as well as markets in the Middle East and Europe. The packaging uses 70% less plastic, is fully recyclable and contains 50% recycled plastic (with a plan to move to 100%). To date, this has removed around 1,500 tonnes of virgin plastic.

Omo campaign

Dove bodywash

Following the success of the OMO dilute-at-home refill format, this year Dove launched a 4x concentrated body wash. The smart formulation uses new, patented technology that thickens when mixed with water. The small refill bottle – which is squeezable, so that all the concentrate is easy to get out – is recyclable and made of recycled material. It uses 50% less plastic than a standard bottle after two refills.

An image showing the range of Dove’s a 4x concentrated body wash bottles.

Refill and reuse in Indonesia

In December 2021, we collaborated with digital start-up QYOS to install two new refill stations in the capital city of Jakarta, dispensing home care products Rinso and Sunlight. Customers simply bring an empty bottle to the stations and refill it with their favourite product. Early feedback has been positive; in addition to reducing unnecessary plastic, customers can save up to 20% on retail prices.

In addition, we’re now extending our refill programme in Indonesia to the communities in our ever-growing network of waste banks, engaging 100 waste banks in the Greater Jakarta and East Java regions as potential new refill outlets.

An image showing a Bango refill station in Indonesia. A man and woman are filling a bottle of Bango.

Scaling refill and reuse

The case studies above highlight just some of the refill–reuse programmes we’ve been testing around the world, introducing consumers and customers to a new way of choosing, using and reusing packaging. They illustrate some of our work in this space but are not exhaustive.

From our various pilots, we have discovered that reusable packaging must be designed specifically to each product category and format. For example, what’s required for a consumer to refill a bottle of Dove hair conditioner in-store is very different from what’s needed for them to use a dilute-at-home surface cleaner.

That’s why we’re now focusing on developing our refill and reuse strategy while scaling up the common successes and synergies.

This work is led by our R&D Packaging Centre, a team of experts within the organisation who are solely focused on the future of packaging. The team uses its extensive knowledge of packaging, technology and material science to design and develop the most sustainable ways to get our products to consumers.

To fully understand the opportunities and challenges related to refill–reuse models, the team analysed all of our pilots. Here are a few of our findings.

Eight insights from our work so far

1. Success lies in simple tailored solutions

Different consumers have different needs and wants, which depend on a host of factors including where they live, how they shop and what they buy. Likewise, different product categories work better on the go than at home. So there is no one-size-fits-all.

Success depends on tailoring solutions accordingly, removing barriers to entry, and keeping systems as simple and affordable as possible.

2. Dilute-at-home models provide convenience

Compact dilutable products are small in size, so they are easy to carry, deliver and store. As such, they require significantly less plastic than traditional packs, and cut carbon emissions as less water is carried by trucks on roads.

And they don’t require as significant a shift in behaviour, unlike the in-store refill format where the consumer must take their empty bottle with them when they go shopping.

3. Digital commerce can help drive the transition

Digital solutions, such as apps or online subscriptions, offer huge potential when it comes to refills, making it easy for consumers to order top-ups of the products they need.

Not only is e-commerce a fast-growing channel for Unilever as a whole, but it also provides invaluable insights and data which can help shape and support our relationship with consumers.

Digital capabilities have powered two refill stations in Indonesia – developed by start-ups QYOS and Algramo – which dispense Rinso and Sunlight home care products. We began working with Algramo on refill models in Latin America. Consumers in Chile were able to purchase OMO and Quix from an electric tricycle that brought the refill machine to their doorstep.

4. This is about more than sustainability

The projects that we’ve seen grow the fastest have been those where we have been able to communicate a very clear value proposition to consumers.

In many cases that’s not just related to sustainability – it’s about affordability and convenience too.

Additional set-up costs to establish refill points or a return/reuse infrastructure are to be expected, but the benefits are reduced logistics and packaging costs.

For example, OMO’s dilute-at-home offering is attractive to consumers in Latin America as it comes at a slightly lower price point than an ordinary liquid detergent – the same unbeatable cleaning and care for clothes, with less plastic.

5. To change behaviour, the benefits must be clear

Just as we’re being bold with our approach to innovation – entirely rethinking our approach to packaging design – we must also be bold with how we take consumers on this journey.

Communicating the benefits of refilling to shoppers who are used to conventional purchasing options presents a challenge, but it’s absolutely vital.

Even consumers who are predisposed to more sustainable choices may not fully understand the environmental and economic advantages that come with refilling.

We believe that widespread public communications campaigns are needed to clarify the benefits of refills – alongside smaller-scale campaigns for specific refill or reuse solutions.

6. Manufacturers and retailers must work together

Retailer engagement is particularly important because in-store refill systems require changes in store layout and operations, including securing space for the dispensers and keeping them topped up, as well as having staff on-hand to help consumers use the machines.

7. Government policy can make a big impact

Government policy, including setting standards and providing incentives for refilling and reusing packaging, can create the right enabling environment for these models to flourish.

The nascent nature of refill models means that regulatory guidelines and public policies can be vague, and we’ve come across challenges with this in several of our pilots. We expect this to change and we look forward to working with policymakers to help shape a clear way forward.

We’re taking part in WEF’s initiative to develop standardised and tested metrics to track progress on reuse.

8. We must be bold with innovation

It’s taken a bold approach to innovation to get to this stage of our refill–reuse journey. We’ve had to entirely rethink our approach to packaging design, learning as we go. We’ve found out vital learnings that need to be integrated in future innovation, such as the importance of clear bottles when consumers refill at home with a concentrate, so they can see the unique formulation working.

We’re learning from every insight, improving and evolving our plans.

So, what’s next for Unilever

The refill and reuse approach is in its early days. We’re all still learning. But experimenting in real-world conditions has given us a lengthy list of insights – and an even lengthier to-do list. Now we want to build momentum and do everything in our power to help bring about a refill–reuse revolution.

Sharing what we’ve learnt is a start, and we hope it will be useful. But global change needs a whole system behind it. We know we can’t do this alone, it requires buy-in from retailers, manufacturers, delivery services, civil society organisations and, of course, consumers. We also see a critical role for governments, especially in helping promote innovation and encouraging investment. We’ll keep collaborating to help make this happen.

We’re rethinking plastic. Will you?

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