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Is the refillable bottle the next Dodo?

The global soft drinks market is served by a rich profusion of packaging choices to satisfy a broad range of both producer and consumer needs. Cartons are relatively cheap, glass presents an image of quality, metal is robust whilst plastic provides versatility, particularly in the case of PET (polyethylene terephthalate). It is not the selection of packaging materials that is extensive but also the range of shapes and sizes from the petite 100ml bottle, as employed by energy shots, through to the ten and twelve litre tanks used for packaging water.

Yet, in an era of growing environmental concerns, more and more of these packages are becoming non-refillable throwaways. For some pack options, such as cartons and cans, disposal after a single use is the only real solution. Reusable cartons do exist i.e. the ‘Juice in a Box’ concept, the result of a collaboration between designer Leo Corrales and Precidio Design Inc. But these containers are plastic based, not board, and are really designed for the lunch box market, being refilled from home. As far as I am aware no one has gotten round to producing refillable cans yet, apart from the high volume drums which contain the syrups for fountain dispensing of soft drinks. There are bio-degradable eco-cans but these are not cheap and therefore not yet viable for mainstream usage.

Then we come to glass. Glass bottles can, of course, be refillable. In the USA, before World War II, nearly all soft drinks were sold in refillable glass bottles and used as many as fifty times. But, according to the environmental group the Green Roots Recycling Network, the US market share for soft drinks in refillable glass bottles declined from 100% in 1947 to less than 1% in 2000 to be replaced, initially, by aluminium cans and disposable glass and later plastics. There are a number of reasons for this development including the economic cost of setting up and maintaining refillable systems and retailer reluctance in supporting the concept. Then there is the potential problem of high level contamination due to consumer misuse, brand image issues through scuffing, blemishes and general wear and tear plus the fact that one way bottles present greater flexibility in respect of changing a pack design.

Refillable glass is still in wide usage elsewhere in the world but total volumes are not increasing whilst the post recessionary soft drinks market is expanding at around 4-5% per annum. As a result, the importance of refillable glass is flagging.

Much of the trend away from refillable glass and, indeed refillable containers in general, has to do with the rise of the PET bottle, patented in the 1970s. In the four subsequent decades the plastic has succeeded in reshaping the entire soft drinks landscape. It is greatly favoured by soft drink producers especially in respect of carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) and bottled water which, when combined, represent the mainstay of the global soft drinks market. It is versatile, resilient, offers good product clarity, provides consumer convenience, good potential for brand differentiation and has allowed for the creation of larger sized units. PET is available in both non-refillable and refillable formats but the latter face the same problems as refillable glass and similarly have been overtaken by single use options. Drinksinfo Ltd estimates that today non-refillable PET bottles outsell reusable ones by a factor of more than 9:1.

Refillable PET bottles are still available but their application is somewhat limited geographically. In many countries non-refillable PET bottles do not even exist but they do have a high occurrence in Central America, for example, primarily thanks to their application in the Mexican CSD category but refillables still outsell their one-way counterparts here and are growing at a faster pace. Western Europe remains as another refillable stronghold, although under pressure. A number of countries in the region, including Denmark, Germany and Norway, give incentives to encourage one way packaging, a reflection of strong environmental policies region. But this approach has been challenged as favouring local industry and restricting international trade.

Despite the encouragement given towards refillable packaging, to my knowledge, Norway is the only country where refillable PET actually has a stronger position than non-refillable. However, in September last year, Coca-Cola Enterprises Norway produced its last 500ml refillable PET bottle in favour of the new Plantbottle, made from up to 22.5% plant-based material and 25% recycled material. Coke estimates that by moving to recyclable non-refillable bottles from refillables, it will reduce the amount of carbon used in production and transport in Norway by up to 34%. The amount of energy and water currently used to transport, receive, wash and sanitise the refillable bottles will also be reduced. As Coca-Cola controls half the country’s CSD market this should have a rapid and significant effect on the balance between refillable and non-refillable PET, to the benefit of the latter. The race is now on to commercialise a 100% biodegradable bottle.

The arrival of the biodegradable bottle provides exciting opportunities for future packaging development but they are still only for one time use whereas, when all is said and done, a single bottle that is filled, say, fifteen times eliminates the need for making fourteen more bottles, avoiding the environmental effects of materials extraction, processing, manufacturing, and recycling or disposal of those fourteen bottles.

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