The plastics problem is one of society's largest issues, and it has been gathering pace for decades. Since plastic became widely commercialised in the mid-20th century, the world has produced over 10 billion tonnes[i] and thrown away almost 8 billion tonnes[ii]. Not only this, but current projections suggest that waste entering the ocean each year could triple from 10 million tonnes to almost 30 million tonnes by mid-century[iii].
Choosing to refill means reducing the amount of waste plastic going to landfill or into the ocean. To some extent, it also means that we reduce demand for single-use plastics products, which, in turn, impacts the supply chain and encourages businesses to invest in more sustainable options (including refill) instead.
What about recyclable plastics or biodegradable ones?
Whilst recyclable or biodegradable plastics may seem like a better or more equitable choice to refill options, it's hard to know what happens to these products after we dispose of them. In the UK, despite there being a steady increase in recycling rates for plastics, only 50% of plastic packaging is currently recycled.[iv] Not to mention the fact that recent studies suggest that recycling plastics may even be contributing to microplastic pollution in the environment.[v]
Biodegradable plastics, by definition, decompose through natural biological processes, which sounds sustainable, but in marketing-speak, 'biodegradable' is an umbrella term confusingly used to cover several different processes with different environmental impacts. As such, how biodegradable plastics are marketed, sold, and promoted is often misleading; University of Birmingham research shows us that the public expectation of what types of plastic or processes should be labelled as biodegradable does not match the reality of the way the term is being used commercially[vi].
It is important that we opt to reduce and reuse, as well as recycle, and refill is a key part of this puzzle. Choosing to refill reduces our reliance on single-use plastic, allows us to reuse safely, and can be a much more affordable way to engage in long-term sustainable choices.
So what can I do?
As a consumer, there is increasing pressure to make sustainable choices, but knowing where to start is often difficult. Choosing refill over single-use can seem daunting; with masses of companies and products being introduced daily and heaps of greenwashing mixed in with genuinely sustainable claims, it can be confusing to determine which product is truly the most sustainable option. Additionally, making the swap can sometimes be tricky to invest in due to being more costly upfront, less widely available, or more time-consuming. With a bit of online research, it is possible to make a sustainable choice that feels right for you, and below are some ideas on where to start switching from single-use to reuse.
- If you can, you could start by purchasing a reusable coffee cup and/or water bottle. These straightforward changes will significantly impact the amount of waste plastic you produce on the go. Research and pick a cup or bottle that works for you and your needs; remember that you only need one to do the job, and it should last for a long time.
- Go a small step further and opt for a packed lunch over purchasing food on the go in single-use packaging; there are many options for eco-sourced lunchboxes to suit many different needs!
- For some cleaning products, you can purchase refillable options online, such as in the form of a tablet which dissolves in water to create a cleaning spray. Not only does this reduce your plastic consumption, but it also reduces CO2 emissions from reduced water transportation. Many of these products can also be purchased in your local grocery store, so there is no need to spend time going out of your way to choose to refill! Some options are more cost-effective.
- For those who can go further, another great way to invest in refill is to shop for your groceries at a local zero-waste store like the Clean Kilo in Birmingham.
Alternatively, you can visit the World Refill Day website for their 10 top tips for switching to refills. You can also download the free refill app to see local places supporting refills, either by offering free water refills, offering discounts for using your coffee cup or offering plastic-free shopping.
You can also pledge your commitment to transitioning to refill and influence others by sharing on social media using the hashtag #WorldRefillDay.
[i] By 2015, cumulative global production was estimated to have reached 8.3 billion tonnes. We have updated this figure with annual global data from Plastics Europe, Plastics: The Facts, with data ranging from 2016 until 2020. All references for this figure are listed below.
- Geyer R, Jambeck J, Law K. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Sci. Adv. 2017;3(7), Available from: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1700782
Plastics Europe. Plastics - The Facts 2017 [Internet]. 2017 p. 16.
- Available from: https://plasticseurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/2017-Plastics-the-facts.pdf
Plastics Europe. Plastics - The Facts 2018 [Internet]. 2018 p. 18.
- Available from: https://plasticseurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/2018-Plastics-the-facts.pdf
Plastics Europe. Plastics - The Facts 2019 [Internet]. 2019 p. 14.
- Available from: https://plasticseurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/2019-Plastics-the-facts.pdf
Plastics Europe. Plastics - The Facts 2020 [Internet]. 2020 p. 16.
- Available from: https://plasticseurope.org/knowledge-hub/plastics-the-facts-2020/
Plastics Europe. Plastics - The Facts 2021[Internet]. 2021 p. 12.
- Available from: https://plasticseurope.org/knowledge-hub/plastics-the-facts-2021/
[ii] By 2015, cumulative waste was estimated to reach 6.3 billion. We have inflated this figure at the annual rate. For 2015 data, see Reference 1.
[iii] The Pew Charitable Trusts. Breaking the Plastics Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution [Internet]. 2020. [cited 27 July 2022].
[iv] British Plastics Federation (no date) Is only 9% of plastic is recycled?, British Plastics Federation.
[v] Recycled plastic can be more toxic and is no fix for pollution, Greenpeace warns (2023) The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/may/24/recycled-plastic-more-toxic-no-fix-pollution-greenpeace-warns
[vi] Professor Andrew P Dove, Professor Fern Elsdon-Baker, Professor Stefan Krause, et al. (2023) Plastics: A Call to Action. doi:10.5281/zenodo.6865976.