The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 11

Last updated on December 11, 2021.

Water bottle refill center painted sign
Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

In my last article about the packaging industry, we explored companies with recycling built into their business models, have creative packaging, or use limited or no packaging. Today, we are going to look at refillable packaging.

Besides refilling bottles or jugs at a water refill station, other consumer refill options could make a significant impact on the amount of disposed of plastic and packaging. The idea is that you buy your products in containers that are either reusable or are returned to the company for sanitation and reuse or recycling. This eliminates disposable packaging and should be one of the major solutions to our packaging problems. I was encouraged to discover just how many companies offer refillable solutions!

“To protect the health of humans and fellow creatures who share our planet, the urgent priority must be to eliminate single-use consumer plastic, and to invest in reusable, refillable and package-free approaches.”1

Cleaning Products

Of the several types of refillable products on the market, I wanted to start with cleaners because they are the easiest to refill. Most cleaning products are made of about 90% water and almost all are sold in single-use disposable plastic bottles or pouches. Additionally, most major brand cleaners are full of harsh chemicals, toxic ingredients, and phthalates (“fragrance”). To make matters worse, in the United States companies are not required to list their ingredients on the label. So what can we do to get away from harmful products that are in disposable packaging? It turns out, there are lots of options!

I have not tried many of these products because I make my own Easy DIY Cleaner that I use for windows, counters, floors, and bathrooms. But I am still looking at options for liquid dish soap, laundry products, personal use items, and food items that have plastic-free packaging and non-toxic ingredients.

Supermarket aisle with cleaning productsSupermarket aisle with cleaning products. Photo by me

Fillaree

I discovered Fillaree earlier this year, and I love their business model.2 They sell liquid dish soap, cleaners, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and other products. You buy your first bottle and when you run out, you can bring it back to the store to refill. Their products are sold in stores, many in North Carolina where they’re based out of but also one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. If you don’t live near a store that sells their products, as I do not, they have a mail program for their dish soap, hand soap, and all-purpose cleaner. No packaging waste! Here’s a Fillaree chart showing how it works:

Fillaree mail in refillables chart

I’ve recently purchased their products and tried their mail-in program. The liquid dish soap comes in a glass pump bottle and the refill comes in a plastic jug that you mail back in a prepaid envelope for the company to reuse. This is an ideal system. I will fully review their products in a future post – but I can tell you that so far, it’s very easy to use.

Meliora Cleaning Products

Meliora banner plastic free packaging

Meliora Cleaning Products is a Certified B Corporation that makes non-toxic cleaners and detergents that are sold in plastic-free refillable packaging.3 Their All-Purpose Cleaner and the refill container can make 18 bottles. They sell powdered laundry detergent in a steel and cardboard container. You can buy refills in recyclable/compostable paper bags and not have plastic waste. I’m excited about this company! I tried their laundry detergent and oxygen cleaner and I like it so much that it is going to be my new regular laundry product brand.

Supernatural

Supernatural starter set with glass bottles and vials

This company uses all-natural essential oil blends for all of their cleaning products, with no chemicals.4 The customer mixes the solutions with water in reusable glass spray bottles. Supernatural’s products ship in glass vials and all items ship with only cardboard packaging. No plastic waste! “When I conceived Supernatural it was out of a desire to create something that’s never been made before: all-natural cleaning products that are sustainably sourced, with the lowest carbon footprint possible, that smell unbelievably amazing,” wrote the founder. They also sell aromatherapy products using essential oil blends.

Blueland

Blueland's products image

With a mission to stop plastic waste and pollution by selling cleaning products in reusable containers, Blueland sells reusable bottles and concentrated refills. Their products have no toxic ingredients, are vegan, and cruelty-free. They ship with all recyclable and/or compostable packaging.5

As I was writing this, Blueland announced that they are doing away with PVA in their laundry tabs! PVA is an acronym for polyvinyl alcohol, which is a petroleum-based plastic that dissolves in water but the plastic stays in the water system. It is commonly used as a wrapper for convenient pre-measured amounts of dishwasher and laundry detergent tabs. They are allegedly dissolvable and biodegradable, but recent studies confirm that all of the plastic does not break down. “PVA does not fully biodegrade in most wastewater treatment facilities. This can potentially result in an estimated 60-82% of intact, PVA particles released into our oceans, rivers and canals,” the company states. Blueland now sells naked laundry detergent tabs. This is a really big deal, and I’m even more excited about this company now!

ThreeMain

ThreeMain product line

This company’s mission is to eliminate plastic packaging in household cleaning products. Sold in aluminum containers and refillable, the company does not appear to use plastic packaging for shipping. They use limited ingredients and list all of them on their website. They are also a carbon-neutral company. The company does use plastic refill pouches but they will reclaim these to send to TerraCycle at their cost, where they will actually be recycled. They have a blog that covers healthy and sustainable living.6

Branch Basics

This company was founded by three women who experienced health problems, both personally and within their families, but discovered renewed health by removing toxins from their homes, food, and lives. They founded Branch Basics to get back to basic, clean living and to inspire others to do so. You select a bottle and buy “The Concentrate” which makes multiple types of cleaner – you use different amounts of water and concentrate in each type of cleaner. I really like that they have one cleaner for almost everything! It is a #1 plastic bottle, but it is significantly less plastic wasted since the product lasts so long. I am also excited about their Wellness Center resource page, which has articles about healthy living.7

Branch Basics The Concentrate diagram

“We believe choices like the food we put in our bodies, the paint we put on our walls, and the cleaners we use around our homes have power; the power to rob us of good health or to cultivate it.” -Branch Basics8

Replenish & CleanPath

Replenish bottle refill diagram

CleanPath, which is part of Replenish,9 are refillable bottle systems that offer concentrated cleaners and foaming hand soap, which saves time, resources, and money.10 The company’s mission is to eliminate waste from buying products in disposable plastic bottles. The founder designed a system where the consumer buys the plastic bottle once and refills it with a concentrated refill pod that attaches to the bottom of the bottle. Each pod can make 4-6 bottles of cleaner. By only shipping the concentrate and no water, it greatly reduces emissions and reduces plastic waste. However, I believe that the pods must be recycled at the end of their life, so this is still plastic waste although much less. Replenish and CleanPath claim to use less toxic ingredients and real essential oil bases for fragrance.

JAWS

JAWS (an acronym for Just Add Water™ System) wanted to reduce plastic waste and reduce emissions by shipping cleaning products without water. They founded their company on this principle: “Stop Shipping Water. It’s the Right Thing to Do.” The products are EPA Safer Choice certified but not necessarily all non-toxic. But they offer full ingredients lists on their website for each product.11 Like Replenish and CleanPath, the pods are not reusable which does still create plastic waste, albeit less plastic waste.

Grove Collaborative

As the name suggests, this collaborative company sells its own products but also sells products from other companies that manufacture like-minded products. They are a Certified B Company that sells household cleaners and personal use items that use safe, non-toxic ingredients but also offer some refillable products and containers. Grove uses a take-back program for their refill pouches, which customers return to them and they send them to TerraCycle for recycling. They have carbon neutral and plastic neutral practices, use ethical supply chains, and use sustainable materials for their own products. This company might be a good solution as a one-stop-shop, but it does seem to be subscription-based only.12
Grove laundry starter set

Truman’s

Trumans surface care starter kit

Inspired to create simple cleaning products, minimize the number of cleaners in the home, and reduce plastic waste, Truman’s created a system of refillable products. They ship them in fully recyclable cardboard packaging. While I respect any company that is trying to do something good, this company sells its pods in PVA, which I do not recommend using. Truman’s also includes upcycled polyester towels in their starter kits, and fibers from polyester (which is plastic) get into the water supply from washing machine drainage.13

Cleancult

Cleancult carton refill

Cleancult sells refills for its line of cleaning products, and its refills are shipped in 100% paper mailers.14 The company is very transparent in its ingredients and explains in detail what every ingredient does, which I really like! It is a carbon-neutral company too. However, Cleancult uses cartons for some refills. These are lined with a thin layer of plastic on the interior and exterior. If you read my article about cartons, you’ll recall that although they contain far less plastic than regular plastic bottles, cartons are not recyclable in many areas. Also, the company uses PVA for its dishwasher and laundry tabs. I do not recommend using any PVA, but I like that this company is taking steps in the right direction.

Common Good

Common Good dish soap glass bottle

Common Good began in an effort to develop products with non-toxic ingredients that were safe around children and pets, as well as reducing plastic waste.15 Its products are Leaping Bunny certified and their biodegradable cleaning formulas are refillable at nationwide refill stations (although there is not one in my area). When purchasing online, the refills come in plastic pouches. While these use 86% less plastic than traditional plastic bottles, Common Good does not take the pouches back. They must be taken to stores that accept plastic bags for recycling. It is not clear if these collection sites result in actual recycling, which I wrote about in a previous article, so these may end up in landfills.

Refillable Systems are on the Rise

Writing this post, I was so encouraged to learn that there are more refill shops than I knew about! I hope that you have discovered a few companies that you’d like to try out. We can all help end plastic packaging waste by using a refill system. I plan to try several of these products and once I do, I’ll be sure to review them! In my next post, I will cover refillable systems for personal use products. Thank you for reading!

“Plastic was meant to last forever, but most is only used once. 8 billion tons of plastic trash – that iced coffee you had last week, that toothbrush you used when you were 4 – are still on the planet.” -Blueland

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 6

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Another plastic product graphic
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you’ve been following my series on the Packaging Industry, hopefully, you’ve found it informative! In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Today, I’ll tell you about one type of EPR, called Take-back programs.

Take-back programs are designed to ‘take back’ discarded items that are not accepted in regular recycling streams like curbside pickup. These programs are typically separate from municipal programs. They are often hosted by manufacturers or companies, for a variety of purposes.

Purposes of Take-Back Programs

Take-back programs exist for several reasons:

        • To reduce contamination of municipal recycling efforts
        • For recycling, at least parts of the items
        • To prevent toxic materials from entering landfilled
        • Simply to draw in customers

It is often a combination of one or two of those reasons. “Some collections, like the ones for e-waste and plastic bags, are often not so much a recycling effort as an attempt to reduce contamination of municipal solid waste streams and ensure proper disposal,” wrote Chris Daly in The Future of Packaging.

Earth friendly graphic
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ are good for business

Many people want to buy from companies that ‘take back’ or recycle items. “We know that consumers are more likely to patronize companies committed to making positive social and environmental impacts,” wrote Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle.1 He noted that many companies have had an influx of marketing campaigns in recent years for consumers to bring back their containers for recycling, but that not all companies are actually socially responsible and transparent in the process.

Sometimes this is greenwashing! If a company cannot actually fulfill its promise of recycling or taking back items, then that is false advertising.

“In the face of increasing demand for more corporate social responsibility and environmental-friendliness, however, the authenticity of some of these recycling programs is questionable.” -Chris Daly

Types of Take-Back Programs

There are many types of take-back programs, so I am presenting the most common ones here.

Computer waste
Computer and other e-waste. Image by dokumol from Pixabay

Plastic Bags, Styrofoam, and Electronics Take-Back Programs

Many stores accept things that typically cannot be recycled, such as plastic grocery bags, styrofoam, and electronics. These programs are good for businesses because they generate foot traffic and brand affinity. This also prevents those items from going to a landfill. It also prevents them from going into your curbside bin, where they will contaminate recycling. Grocery stores, such as Publix, accept plastic bags, #4 plastic bags and Amazon Prime type shipping envelopes, toilet paper wrap, produce and bread bags, dry cleaning bags, styrofoam egg cartons, and styrofoam meat trays. Staples and Best Buy take back many electronic items for recycling. Many electronics companies, such as Samsung,2 have take-back programs of their own, through the mail or drop sites.

While it’s not clear what happens to any of those items, at least there’s a chance that some of those are actually recycled. Also, toxic materials will not leach into groundwater from landfills. In the meantime, these companies appear to be eco-friendly. They can also physically draw you into the stores. Might as well pick up some milk and eggs or printer paper, or maybe check out the new iPhones since you’re already there?

Plastic bag from Food City
Plastic bag from Food City. Photo by me
Publix

Publix states that “by inspiring customers to recycle these items, we ensure they are disposed of properly and keep them out of the environment and landfills.” It is unclear if these items are actually recycled as they do not specify what they do with the items. The corporation indicates that they are collected at their return centers and “then processed and sold to be made into other items.”3 That’s vague, but I still respected Publix for the effort.

Until I read that Publix actually claims that plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags! In fact, the entire post is dedicated to promoting plastic over paper. I am appalled and extremely disappointed in Publix for making false claims such as “plastic bags use 71% less energy to produce than paper bags.” Among the many others, “using paper bags generates almost five times more solid waste than using plastic bags,” is similarly outrageous.4

Recycling bins at Publix. Photo by me
Amazon Prime envelopes
Amazon Prime plastic envelopes, accepted at some grocery stores for “recycling.” Note that Amazon does not take these back directly. Photo by me
A Microwave

A few years ago, I had a Hamilton Beach brand microwave that stopped working. I begrudgingly replaced it with a new microwave and immediately searched for a proper way to dispose of it but to no avail. I found out that Hamilton Beach will recycle and “properly dispose” of their products if you mail them to them at your cost.5 So I measured and weighed the microwave and looked up the shipping cost on USPS – and it would have been $41! So instead I put it in my shed and forgot about it for a while.

Last year, I called Staples to see if they accepted microwaves. They told me on the phone that yes, they do accept microwaves. So I loaded it in the car and took it to my local Staples. When I got to the service desk, I again asked if they’d recycle the microwave. They said yes. However, when I was researching for this post this week, I discovered that their site says they do not accept kitchen appliances. Now I wonder if that microwave was recycled, or if it was tossed in the trash after all. I guess I’ll never know, but I sure tried.

Brother brand printer ink cartridges.
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Ink Cartridges, Light Bulbs, and Rechargeable Batteries Take-Back Programs

These programs are designed to keep contaminants out of landfills, as all three types of these items contain toxic materials. A few companies offer “rewards” in exchange for recycling. For example, Staples offers $2 back in rewards per recycled ink cartridge. This creates brand loyalty, as you are more likely to buy your ink there regularly if you are trying to use this rewards program. In fact, you have to – their rules state that you can earn the $2 per cartridge “if the member has spent at least $30 in ink and/or toner purchases at Staples over the previous 180 days.” This is only a good deal if you buy enough ink to keep up with that. At least these cartridges are likely recycled. Other companies, such as HP, have many ways for consumers and businesses to recycle their ink cartridges and electronics.6

Many hardware stores and home improvement centers, such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, take back used compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. Batteries Plus Bulbs will accept certain types of light bulbs and batteries, although not alkaline. For alkaline battery recycling, see my article from earlier this year.

Compact fluorescent light bulb
Compact fluorescent light bulb, image courtesy of Pixabay

Textile Recycling

The textile industry is notoriously wasteful, especially now that major retailers promote new fashion trends weekly rather than seasonally. But there are a few companies that have take-back programs. Patagonia may be the best example of this as they’ve had the program for a long time, don’t push new trends weekly, and stand by the quality of their products. Patagonia accepts all its products for recycling if the items can no longer be repaired or donated.7

Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe product claims to take their old shoes grind them down to use in performance products and sports surfaces.8 The NorthFace and Levi’s are among others that take back some of their clothing for reuse or recycling. However, please know that clothing is so disposable in western society that second-hand clothing is overwhelming other parts of the world, creating waste problems in those areas. The solution for textiles is to buy less clothing, wear your clothing for a long time, and buy second-hand when possible.

Donated clothing stacks at a Goodwill outlet being prepared to be sent to various aftermarkets.
“A tour of the Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN, in April 2019. Goodwill processes and recycles enormous amounts of material. Its outlets take in things that didn’t sell in Goodwill stores and separates them for various aftermarkets.” Photo by MPCA Photos on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Solutions

Take-back programs offer a solution for some items that are hard to dispose of, such as computers, batteries, and light bulbs. It isn’t clear if these programs result in real recycling. Sometimes the companies are not transparent about their take-back program details. The real solution is for companies to invest in a system that can make these items reusable, in a circular economy or closed-loop system. We also need to consume less in general.

In my next post, I’ll examine two types of take-back programs that have high success rates. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Footnotes: