Four Refill Models that are Solving the Single-Use Crisis

Photo by Bluewater Sweden on Unsplash

The paper and plastic waste from foodservice packaging chokes our landfills and waterways and adds to the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our planet. However, reuse and refill models are quickly growing as an alternative solution to single-use options, helping usher in a circular economy with materials that can be used again and again. When we replace 20% of the world’s disposable plastic packaging with sturdy sustainable goods, we also unlock a $10 billion opportunity that’s good for people and the planet. But what does a reusable system look like? There are four common models that illustrate the different ways businesses can help solve the issue of waste.

  1. Refill at Home

This system allows users to refill their reusable container at home with refills delivered through a subscription service. The Refill at Home model is ideal for e-commerce since companies can communicate their solution to customers online without competing for shelf space at physical stores. Beverage or beauty product companies can reduce costs of transportation and packaging with products that arrive as concentrate, tablets, and refills that are significantly easier to store and cheaper to buy than products in standard packaging. Users also tend to have more freedom of customization to choose, for example, different flavors for sparkling water or test out a deodorant fragrance. Refill subscriptions that are delivered directly to users also build brand loyalty through the convenience of automatic refills. Companies like Sodastream allow users to make their own sparkling water at home, with a gas cylinder exchange system that customers ship back in exchange for a deposit. This eliminates thousands of plastic bottle waste while saving space in the fridge.

Photo by LuAnn Hunt on Unsplash

2. Refill on the Go

Users refill their reusable container away from home, usually at an in-store dispensing system. This model requires a physical location and is suited best for traditional retail outlets in cities. Users pay what they can by customizing their desired refill quantities, allowing more communities to join the sustainability movement. When dispensing systems are mobile or placed in common public areas, users feel motivated to carry and clean their own containers to refill their products. Certain grocery stores incorporate this model with bulk ingredients like flours, grains, and oils, but the most common example is the public water fountain. Businesses can benefit by collecting data on user preferences and adjusting their offerings accordingly. Products that come in concentrates to be mixed with water for flavored beverages in a dispensing machine also reduce packaging and transportation costs. For example, DASANI PureFill is a self-serve water station with options to customize flavors or add bubbles for a small fee, while tracking user preferences. After a successful test at a university, more machines are being installed at schools, hospitals, and on-site work locations.

Photo by Sandra Harris on Unsplash

3. Return from Home

Packaging is picked up from home by a pickup service, such as a logistics company. This model is well-suited for e-commerce, especially when used packaging pickup can be combined with the delivery of new products. It operates most efficiently in urban areas with shorter travel distances between user homes, with products ranging from groceries to meal delivery to personal care. Shared logistics and cleaning facilities across a brand network and third-party packaging /service provider also streamline operations. Companies utilizing the Return from Home model can incentivize users to return packaging through deposit and reward schemes, building brand loyalty in the process. An automatic subscription service allows businesses to collect data on user preferences while removing user responsibility of manually tracking their products. The UK company DabbaDrop is inspired by a centuries-old lunch delivery and return system in Mumbai, in which meals are delivered in tiffin boxes that are collected, washed, and returned to households and restaurants within 24 hours. Users with a subscription pay a one-time GBP 15 fee for the first Dabbadrop container purchase, with a flat rate of GBP 3 for every delivery drop afterwards.

Photo by ROOM on Unsplash

4. Return on the Go

Users return packaging at a store or drop-off point, like a deposit return machine similar to a mailbox. This model is applicable in both urban and suburban environments since it replaces nearly all single-use packaging without altering the purchasing process. The Return on the Go system has been implemented in cities in multiple countries for takeaway coffee, beverage, and food. Like the Return from Home model, deposit and reward schemes build brand loyalty and encourage users to return packaging. When companies collaborate in a network of locally-operated shared logistics, cleaning facilities, and drop-off points across brands, users enjoy improved convenience with a higher density of drop-off points. As companies track data through deposits, smart packaging, and drop-off locations, they understand how to continue improving operations for user preferences. For example, German company RECUP offers a reuse scheme to cafes across the country. Coffee drinkers pay a 1 EUR deposit for a reusable cup, which is then returned once they drop off the cup at any RECUP partner location. A paired app highlights the location of all possible drop-off locations for user convenience, and each cup is designed to be used up to 1000 times.

Sustainably-minded entrepreneurs around the world are seizing the opportunity to do better for our planet and allow consumers to take part in positive change. Here at Topanga, we utilize the Return on the Go system for anyone who wants takeout at our participating locations in Los Angeles. If your restaurant or cafe is interested in joining the green revolution, contact us today to get started!

This story is written in conjunction with



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Lorena Bally

Lorena Bally

Intersectional Environmentalist, Land Steward, Curious Mind