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Refillable plastic bottles: how eco-friendly are they?

We examine the growing trend for refillable products – looking at whether they will save you money and how the eco claims really stack up

Refillable plastic bottles: how eco-friendly are they?

Refillable products are growing in popularity, but they’re easy to miss on the supermarket shelves unless you’re really looking. It’s worth seeking them out where you can – here’s why. 

The concept of refillables is simple: buy the original bottle once and then refill it from something more eco-friendly. Usually this means a combination of less plastic, less wasted lorry space and sometimes less water used for the same amount of the product.

We investigated some of the most widely available refillable-at-home cleaning and personal care products. Our experts compared their prices, analysed their packaging and uncovered the truth behind their eco claims.

Here we reveal everything you need to know before adding refillables to your shopping trolley.

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What do I need to know about refillables?

Our investigation looked at 12 popular refillable-at-home personal and home care products (alongside their original versions).

Refillable products are still pretty new, which means there’s a huge variation in their size, shape and packaging. We analysed their prices, packaging, labelling and eco-claims.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • You’ll save money Eleven of the 12 products we looked at were cheaper per ml than their original counterparts. And the savings are impressive – up to 44% in the case of the Ecover washing-up liquid.
  • They use less plastic All but one of the products in our investigation used eco-claims focused on plastic reduction. The most striking claim was Carex’s ‘85% less plastic’ on its handwash refill pouch. But less plastic is only one part of the story.
  • Recyclability is complex Just four of the 12 sets of products in our investigation had packaging that was recyclable in most councils’ household collections. Indeed, for five products the packaging of the refill was actually not recyclable in household collections, while the original was. But don’t be put off, as experts agree that reducing total packaging through high reuse can often be worth the non-recyclable refills.
  • They use fewer lorries While refill pouches may be less recyclable, they use much less plastic. They also weigh less and take up less lorry space. Research has shown that 30 plastic bottles require about the same amount of storage and shipping space as 840 pouches. And one truckload of flat pouches is equal to 15 to 25 truckloads of empty rigid containers.

If you’re tempted to give refills a go, look for concentrates where possible. Where you can, pick those with lighter and ideally recyclable packaging.

Our investigation: popular refillable products

Handwash is the most popular type of refillable personal and homecare product, bought in the past year by 26% of the people we surveyed. But refillable washing-up liquid, cleaning spray and shampoo are also widely available.

Here’s a round-up of some of the key products in our investigation and what you need to know about them:

Carex handwash original, 1 litre, £2.85

You’ll use 85% less plastic opting for this compared with buying four of Carex’s 250ml bottles. And you’ll also save 29% on the price. There’s a great explanation of how the refill system works on both the refill and its original counterpart. The pouch isn’t recyclable in household collections, but it is part of a TerraCycle scheme. Plus, it saves on transport-related carbon emissions: 30 plastic bottles require about the same amount of storage and shipping space as 840 pouches.

Cif Power & Shine Kitchen, 70ml (but makes 700ml), £1.50

Cif concentrate

This was the only concentrate we looked at in our investigation. You’ll save 25% on the price per ml by buying the 10x concentrated refill, and 75% of the plastic. Diluting concentrate is one of the best types of refillable product for the environment. It can mean 97% less water being shipped across the world and significantly less packaging. Cif also promises to replace the bottle and trigger free of charge to keep you in the refill system. It’s well labelled, though not entirely recyclable – the plastic sleeve can’t be recycled but the clear plastic bottle has a high recyclable value.

Ecover washing-up liquid, lemon and aloe vera, 5 litres. £9.99.

Ecover washing up liquid

One of the rare examples where both the refill and original bottle are widely recyclable – just remember to screw the lids back on for maximum recyclability. Ecover claims you will save 47% plastic by opting for this refill compared with the original bottles. It also publishes a list of Ecover refill stations you can use – a step ahead of many of its competitors. It’s cost-effective too, as you’ll save 44% on the price per ml when opting for the large 5-litre refill bottle rather than the 450ml original.

Faith in Nature coconut shampoo, 5 litres. £50.

Faith in Nature shampoo refill

The refill for this shampoo comes in a huge plastic bottle, which is widely recyclable – and if you screw the lid back on that will be recycled too. In fact, Faith in Nature actually goes a step further by taking returns by freepost for reuse or recycling. It’s a pity that this recyclability isn’t labelled on the packaging though, meaning some people might not realise. Nor is the opportunity to refill mentioned on the packaging of the original bottle – there is however a list of Faith in Nature refill stations available online. You will save 27% on the price per ml.

NOTE: We compared the largest widely available refill with the smallest widely available original from the same brand.

Where to buy refillables?

The popularity of refillable personal care and cleaning products is undoubtedly gathering pace. But it’s not as easy to find them as you might hope.

Shoppers who hadn’t bought any refillable products in the past year told us the main reason for this was because they were difficult to find (29%)*.

We picked the most widely available refill products for our investigation, but some were still tricky to source. Online is a good option for both major retailers and smaller ones. Some specialist companies offer refillable packages or subscriptions. And there are also some refillables on the supermarket shelves – but you do have to look out for them as they’re not always easy to spot. They may look quite different to the usual version or, in the case of small concentrates, struggle for attention on the shelf next to their larger, less sustainable rivals.

Why labelling needs to be better

recycling box

Our research showed it’s often not even clear from the original product when a refill is available.

Nine of the 12 products in our investigation didn’t have any labelling to highlight the fact they were refillable – so unless you were in the know you’d be likely to throw the bottle away without realising. The On-Pack Recycling Label scheme is about to launch new refillable labels, which should help. Five of the 12 products were also missing labelling telling consumers whether the packaging of both the original and the refill was recyclable or not.

Which? is urging supermarkets and manufacturers to make refillable personal care and cleaning products more widely available to customers. So keep an eye out and buy them when you can. Ultimately, change will only come if shoppers start voting with their wallets.

*Consumer data is based on an online survey of 2,008 members of the public conducted in February 2021. Data has been weighted to be representative of the UK population (aged 18+).
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