Righting the wrongs – Reusables are the only way forward

by Awantika Pal, South Asia Network Organizer, #breakfreefromplastic

March 13, 2021 at 01:16:27 PM

Refillable bottles were introduced by Coca-Cola in the 1940s and were the only way beverages were delivered. Those iconic glass Coca-Cola bottles were originally designed to be purchased, their fizzy contents consumed, and then returned to the company for reuse. That changed in 1970s, when Coca Cola replaced them with single use plastic bottles. Fast forward to 2020 and we see Coca-Cola named as the #1 Top Global Polluter in our Brand-Audit results, a position it has held in BFFP global brand audits in 2018 and 2019 as well.

Coca-cola’s transition is exemplary of how deep the plastic pollution crisis is, and why there is a need for companies to dive deeper into the sustainability of their products. Decades ago, it was common practice to sell beverages in glass bottles, and for customers to deposit empty ones at collection points. With the rise of plastic production and the convenience it brings, the reusable culture has been replaced by single-use plastic bottles across many parts of the world. 

Despite the criticism, most companies and brands still pay nominal nods to reuse, choosing instead to place the blame on consumers and municipalities. While proper waste management and recycling are an integral part of solving the plastic-crisis, it is not a lasting solution. It is imperative that corporations replace the single-use plastics all together with refillable bottles. 

According to a report by Tearfund, refillables are preferable for three key reasons. As compared to recycled SUPs that eventually become waste, reusable and refillable packaging conserve more of the natural resources in each bottle and box. It is also doubtful if communities across the world have the capacity to  actually recycle such a large and ever-increasing volume of plastic. Only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling annually, and even in developed countries, recycling capacity often falls far short of total plastic use. Further, these issues with recycling such a massive amount of waste only indicates that there is going to be an increased emphasis on incineration.

There is a common misconception that refillables are an outdated system that is difficult to implement. However, refillable bottles are still a major delivery system for beverages in many parts of the world and account for more than 30% of beverages sold in major markets, including Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, and Indonesia. “Refillable systems are currently in place in 94 countries, and together these nations account for 80% of global sales of ready-to-drink water, soda, and other non-alcoholic beverages.” 

In the Asia Pacific region especially, there are commendable efforts being led by frontline groups and entrepreneurs that model the feasibility of refillables. In 2018, The Philippines ranked sixth in the world in terms of refillable sales, tenth in refillable units per capita sold, and second in market share of refillable containers sold compared to single-use containers (64%). In India, sales of refillables jumped from 6 billion units to 11 billion units from 2010 to 2018, even though the market share for refillables fell from 55% to 37% during the same time period.

GAIA Asia Pacific has recently published BUSINESS UNUSUAL: Enterprises paving the way to Zero Waste, where they bring forward stories of enterprises that promote plastic-free packaging and refill systems. Refillables Hoi An in Vietnam is one such business that is providing plastic-free delivery systems in a tourist destination like Hoin An and ensuring suppliers and consumers understand how feasible refillables are.

In India, House of Nanak, a dairy company in India, introduced a clean-label milk that is making use of glass jars and bottles to supply milk in order to avoid plastic use  by providing a discount on the next order for whoever returns the previously used bottles for reuse. In Thailand, when a pilot whale died in the southern shores from eating 80 plastic bags weighing up to eight kilograms in 2018, it brought a powerful awakening and movement amongst citizens to act on their responsibility towards the planet. Many businesses have taken the initiative to start refill stations in their shops, and the compiled list of such shops can be found in an interactive-map here.  

Similarly, organisations and groups across the region are committed to promoting refillables and reuse vigorously as a part of the solutions narrative. Thanal, India, & Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee worked together with the Government of Sikkim to introduce a successful solid waste management policy in the state that bans bottled waters and encourages people to carry refillable water bottles. Likewise, the World Bank Campus in Pakistan has commited that they will use reusable water bottles at filter stations around the office rather than using plastic bottles that will end up in landfills.

These exemplary initiatives being led by budding enterprises and advocacy groups indicate that it is in fact possible to transition to refillables and reduce plastic pollution. For decades now, the beverage industry has pushed the narrative that plastic bottles are much more superior and convenient as compared to glass bottles. For the longest time, the environmental impacts of the plastic bottles weren’t considered or analyzed. However, with increasing awareness, it is becoming clearer that the practice of reusable glass bottles helped keep excessive amounts of waste from the landfills.  

According to the global Grandview research report, the big-names in the beverage industry are companies like PepsiCo, Inc., The Coca-Cola Company, Nestle, and Unilever – companies that consistently appear as the top plastic polluters in our Brand-Audit reports. This means that these companies hold the power to change the future of refillables and plastic-pollution. It is upon these companies to urgently reduce the amount of single-plastic they use and increase the market share of refillables. While it is a lengthy process, it is absolutely necessary for companies to commit to refillables since 93% less energy is consumed by a refillable bottle that can be reused 25 times, as opposed to single-use bottles. 

If companies do not turn away from plastic now and implement sustainable packaging systems, it might be too late.  It is high time that corporations choose saving the earth over profit. Therefore, The Break Free From Plastic movement is calling on companies across Asia-Pacific and globally to transition to incorporate refillable and reusable products in their packaging and delivery system to move beyond single-use plastic altogether.

The information used in this blog was collected from BFFP member organisations in South Asia. If you’re interested to know more, you may send an email to Awantika Pal <awantika@breakfreefromplastic.org>

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