Refill or pre-fill: which is better in the quest for reusable packaging? | Comment and opinion
The number of green initiatives abandoned or watered down amid the cost of living crisis is growing. On the government side, projects to rewild the countryside have been scaled back, an exceptional tax has been levied on energy companies; The DRS proposals are being considered and, with a new YouGov poll suggesting most Tory voters want to pause net zero environmental policy, pending PM Liz Truss has vowed to end green levies on energy bills.
Something similar also happens on the trading side. Iceland last month reneged on its pledge to eliminate plastic from its own label by 2023. And last week two trials of reusable packaging – from Tesco and Aldi – were canned.
It’s really a pity. Despite Wrap’s historic announcement earlier this year that plastic used on fresh fruit and vegetables will be added to the list of packaging retailers and suppliers will seek to remove under the UK Plastics Pact, the shelves of supermarkets (and online deliveries) are flooded with plastic.
There were high hopes that the commendable efforts of the industry (from Tesco and Aldi but also from Morrisons, Waitrose, M&S, Asda, JS, Ocado, etc., as well as new online DTC players) to develop solutions substantial without packaging, despite the pandemic, would lead to demonstrable progress. But as the cost of living crisis has deepened, the fear has always been that deployments will stall, progress will come to a screeching halt or, worse, plans will be scrapped entirely. News from Tesco and Aldi seem to confirm the worst.
Tesco says it will share more detailed results with the industry so lessons can be learned. Let’s hope so. For if there is to be a legacy (rather than this powerful idea being taken away), answers are certainly needed as to the best way forward. And as it stands, it feels like a choice between refill or pre-fill.
Proponents of pre-fill – Tesco’s trial format – say it may appeal to shoppers who want the convenience of simply grabbing something from the shelf, rather than filling a container. But can those same convenience buyers be relied upon to return the container? Some argue the answer lies with collections from households, so it would be interesting to know how many returns Tesco has gotten in this way, by post, versus dropping off at collection points.
As for refill trials, allowing buyers to fill their own containers, after a flurry of trial launches between 2019 and last year, rollouts have slowed this year, while Aldi canned its only pilot. Again, it is promised to learn lessons. Time will tell if all these hardships lead us anywhere other than the garden path.