Which has a greater environmental impact?
Anyone who has taken time to research sustainable solutions, or tried to compare two products on their environmental merits will know that it is a broad and confusing topic. When it comes to closed-loop refills it may appear that the ideal solution has already been reached, but for many there is still a question over whether recycling is actually better environmentally.
Waste reduction is a really positive part of refilling and reuse, and it tends to go hand in hand with suppliers who are ethical and use high quality ingredients. However, as we are beginning our "Just One Bottle" campaign again for January 2024, I thought it would be worth taking a look at what really is the best option - refilling or recycling.
Is there anything left to compare?
Usually when we discuss whether to refill or recycle bottles, what we're really comparing is a linear approach to a circular one. Recycling is a finite solution for plastics, which is discussed at length in my previous blog. Refilling looks to be much better as in theory a tub can be refilled many times, effectively closing the loop on waste in the supply chain.
However, those that think recycling is better overall are looking at more than just waste. When you consider transport, carbon footprint, water consumption and energy consumption many claim that refilling has a greater impact.
As soon as you consider the wider context of the supply chain, it becomes much less clear-cut. I started to research this topic last summer (July 2023) as I was looking into new liquid refill products for the shop. I struck up a conversation with some potential new brands for our shelves and although I already knew that not all suppliers of bulk liquids offer a closed-loop approach, I hadn't really considered the reasons why.
For some they simply do not have the facilities for tubs to be returned, for others they do take their tubs back but only for recycling. I pressed on the topic and got some interesting replies, one in particular got me thinking about whether or not I had it all upside down:
"It is possible but the volumes we would be doing would use so much water and energy that it is actually less environmentally friendly if you look at it in a holistic way [...] Also, these drums will probably only be able to be washed out a small number of times, 4/5 before the drum becomes unfit for purpose and has to be recycled and therefore a new Virgin PET drum needs to be made."
I won't name the brands I talked to, I chose not to stock them and I don't want this article to read as a negative breakdown of their approach but simply an exploration of a complex topic. Also, I am aware that other independent zero waste shops do stock them and I support the significant positive effect they are having.
However, an interesting and worthwhile journey began for me as I delved a bit deeper into whether recycling or refilling is actually better.
This seems a good place to start as washing the tubs prior to refilling them is one of the main negative markers for closed-loop supply that I came across.
The amount of water used in the production of new plastic includes everything from the extraction of the oil, to the processing and finally the production of polyethylene terephthalate, otherwise known as PET plastic.
All things considered, it takes 10 litres of blue water to make 1 kilogram of plastic (1). This seems an arbitrary amount on it's own, but in the context of single-use bottles it takes at least twice as much water to make a bottle, than the bottle will actually hold (2). There are a lot of numbers floating around (pun intended) but I've chosen the most conservative, when you include green and grey water, you are looking at anywhere from 8 to 10 times the amount needed to make the bottle.
For single-use plastics that are sent for recycling, that water consumption has been spent on one cycle from extraction, to manufacture, distribution, use and end of use. Water is needed to recycle the plastic into pellets, and further water used on turning those pellets into a new usable product.
There is very little data available on how much water recycling actually requires from start to finish. I've searched and found almost nothing that would give a trustworthy figure for the whole process. However, there is data on how much water is used just in the average wash-line of plastic recycling facilities, approximately 25 m3 per hour (3) is needed for decontamination. This data doesn't provide a figure for how much plastic is processed in that hour but it is a huge amount of water; 25,000 litres would need to wash 25,000 kilograms to give a 1:1 ratio.
We can assume that most tubs used for closed-loop supply chains are made from virgin plastic, so they begin with the same water consumption footprint as the single-use equivalent. However, the rest of a reusable bottles lifecycle looks very different.
SESI is one of two suppliers we use for liquid refills. They have a purpose built washroom, with equipment that has been tailor made to wash and sanitise a range of reusable container sizes, from individual bottles up to the big 20 litre tubs that we have on our shelves at Earthian.
I asked them about the water consumption of their closed loop system and they sent me a detailed response:
"In the Washroom the tubs are pressure washed, at approximately 15 seconds per tub. The amount of water used per 20L washed tub is less than one litre. The washing therefore is a factor of 35x less water consuming than the production of a new tub from virgin plastic."
They also told me that they're working on improving the system further and hope to start capturing rain water to further reduce the pressure their system puts on water supplies. They have also signed up to be part of The Courtauld Commitment 2030 | WRAP, which is asking organisations to voluntarily reduce food waste, carbon and water in food manufacturing.
Miniml is also a supplier for us and they do everything under one roof. Their UK-based factory in Skipton has a washroom that filters the water and reuses it to minimise waste as much as possible during the cleaning process.
Energy Consumption, Carbon and Transport:
I've grouped these together, partly to try and reign in the length of this post but also due to the lack of data available for me to share. It's incredibly difficult to make direct and meaningful comparisons when the data is so sparce, but I'll do my best to be fair.
What we do know is that recycling plastic creates a lot less carbon than new virgin plastic does. It is certainly much better to use post consumer recycled (PCR) plastic as the reduction between GHG emission on new plastic manufacturing compared to recycled plastic is 37% (4). In addition, recycling helps keep plastic away from landfill where it can do further atmospheric damage. For each ton of plastic waste in landfill, 3 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) GHG emissions are released (5).
I would love to make further comparisons here between recycling and refilling in terms of carbon footprint but at the moment I don't have much data to offer. Miniml do have solar panels fitted to their factory to source renewable energy through onsite capture. As confirmed in this article about the company they are planning on adding wind turbines to increase the amount of renewables they use further.
Clearly, when you have a system of returning tubs back to the manufacturer for reuse you are also adding a new layer of transportation to the supply chain. One solution to this is for suppliers to use their own fleet and when stock is distributed, the empties are collected in one round trip. This is what SESI, who are based in Oxford, do for their local suppliers. We are delivered to on a Monday only to reduce and consolidate the number of routes they do. The driver leaves with a full van of full tubs and returns with an equally full van of empties.
With Miniml we are too far way from their Skipton factory for this to be worthwhile or efficient. Instead we collect a larger number here and then return them on a pallet.
The pallet pictured is a good example of how we typically pack a collection, which is all held together with a reusable pallet net. There are 28x 20l tubs and 8x 5l tubs in the center gap to maximise space on the pallet. That is roughly the equivalent of 600 litres and 1,200 bottles refilled.
I would be really interested to know how it compares to recycle these 36 bulk containers instead of returning them. What I do know is that recycling is not something that we are very good at. I'm not just hinting at the low levels of plastic recycling, but very few countries are able to do all their recycling within their own borders. Recycling is a global problem and a global process.
To go down the route of recycling I would need to increase the frequency of our commercial waste collections as these tubs are large and space-hungry even when squashed. We can empty up to 10 tubs a week, which usually isn't an issue when they're returned for free. Not only would recycling them increase costs for our business, but there is also no guarantee that these tubs would be processed and recycled in the local area increasing the transport costs too.
Considering that data from as recent as 2022 shows that we are still sending 60% of our plastic waste/recycling abroad (6), I believe that these tubs are likely to travel many more miles being recycled than they would be when returned and refilled with our UK-based suppliers.
It's been an eye-opening and interesting journey researching these finer details of refilling vs recycling. My conclusion is that I still favour refilling as a more sustainable option, all things considered. So long as there is collective effort between the shops that "borrow" and return the tubs to actually do so and they aren't returned damaged then they should last for many refills and many journeys. In that lifetime, they will refill hundreds of smaller bottles that would otherwise have been single-use.
I hope you've also found this interesting. I'd love to know what you think and if you have any questions or knowledge to share on this topic. I feel like I'm always learning, not just about business but about sustainable living and why sustainable choices can be so hard to make.
Happy New Year to you and thank you for reading this article.