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Packaging-free products are popping up across the UK, but how large is the range at each supermarket and how much are shoppers charged?
Several supermarkets have packaging-free aisles, but they are still fairly few and far between. Find out where to find refill stations below.
What are packaging-free products?
Packaging-free products do what they say on the tin. Or lack thereof.
They are items without packaging, meaning shoppers have to bring their own bags or containers to purchase the products. Some supermarkets also have their own containers on sale too.
The items include anything from rice to cereals, laundry detergent, coffee and pasta.
The supermarkets that have installed this eco-friendly option to their stores have done so as part of their push to become more sustainable businesses and help shoppers to shop in a more environmentally-friendly way in tandem.
- Find out more: What are supermarkets doing about plastic?
Which supermarkets have zero-waste refill aisles?
Several supermarkets offer packaging-free groceries in at least one store. Aldi, Asda, The Central England Cooperative, M&S, Morrisons and Waitrose have introduced a range, and several have plans to expand it to more branches in the future.
Aldi has had zero-waste refills on a trial basis at its Ulverston, Cumbria store since April 2021. It was the first discounter to add the option to a store.
The packaging-free section offers basmati rice, brown rice, penne pasta and wholewheat fusilli.
Aldi stocks complimentary paper bags for people to put the loose items into as well, and these are both fully recyclable and made of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified material.
The retailer said it is testing the packaging-free groceries at its Ulverston store to help cut back on its and customers’ plastic use. Aldi also aims to halve the volume of plastic packaging it uses by 2025 and have all its own-label products’ packaging as recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022, followed by branded products by 2025.
Richard Gorman, Aldi’s plastics and packaging director said it will use shoppers’ feedback on the packaging-free food items to help inform ‘any future plans around refillable products.’
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Asda has been piloting a packaging-free aisle with 53 unwrapped items at its Middleton, Leeds branch since October 2020, including tea, coffee, rice, pasta, cereals, mushrooms and plum tomatoes.
The supermarket has partnered with brands as part of the trial including Persil, Kellogg’s, Radox, Vimto, Lavazza and PG Tips.
Shoppers can use their own containers or purchase one from the supermarket to take their products home in. These are reusable bags made from 100% recycled plastic water bottles for 30p each or several different sized containers and reusable bags costing between 30p up to £10.
Asda’s entire Middleton store was specifically designed to be sustainability-driven to help Asda test several environmentally friendly concepts to cut back on plastic use. Two of these are a collection points for typically hard to recycle items such as crisp packets, biscuit wrappers, printer cartridges and toys, alongside a reverse vending machine which takes drinks cans, and glass and plastic bottles.
Asda said ‘several’ refillable products available at its Middleton supermarket have ‘outstripped packaged sales’ with ‘many customers travelling from outside the local area to shop sustainably.’
It therefore plans to expand the pilot to four further stores by the end of 2021, with items from brands like Yorkshire Tea, Napolina pasta and Tilda rice. The first of these will be its Rugby, Warwickshire and Toryglen, Glasgow superstores in August, followed by the largest installation of refillable items at its York branch in October.
The York store will have 18 standalone bays featuring over 70 branded and own-label products in a refillable format from October, followed by nine bays added to Asda’s Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire branch in December.
All four stores will feature Persil, Radox, Simple and Alberto Balsam products from Unilever in stainless steel reusable bottles. These will be tested in two refill formats – refill on the go where shoppers can refill their bottle using a machine in-store and return on the go where people can pick up pre-filled bottles off the shelf and return them in-store once used.
Susan Thomas, director of commercial sustainability at Asda said its ‘ultimate goal’ is to make ‘refill and reuse a part of every Asda shopping trip and to achieve this we have to make it easy, accessible and affordable for all our customers. Middleton was a great introduction to how customers engage with refill products and we are now looking to accelerate these learnings by trialling different refill options in more stores to understand which aspects can potentially developed further.’
- Find out more: What are supermarkets doing about plastic?
The Central England Co-op
A new branch in Lichfield, Staffordshire opened in November 2020 with a zero-waste refill aisle in partnership with Suma Wholefoods.
Shoppers can bring their own containers to fill up on a range of over 45 products including porridge, rice and dried fruit, and it has no restrictions on what sort of containers people can use. It plans to add several non-food items in September 2021 such as shampoo, conditioner and laundry detergent.
The Lichfield branch, which cost £3m, has been designed as part of the Central England Co-op’s efforts to ‘cut down plastic packaging and waste,’ it said. ‘Feedback has been great so far and we cannot wait to hear more of what people think in the coming weeks and months.’
It is the only shop the society has that currently offers packaging-free items, but the Central England Co-op told Which? the concept could be rolled out across more of its 262 stores nationwide, if it proved successful.
Hannah Gallimore, corporate responsibility manager at the Central England Co-op, said: ‘As a responsible business, we are committed to minimising our impact on the environment and doing so in new and innovative ways.’
- Find out more: How eco-friendly refillable plastic bottles?
M&S rolled its packaging-free concept called Fill Your Own to 11 stores in June.
It has been testing Fill Your Own since December 2019, and added it to another two branches in March 2020. M&S’s packaging-free range consists of around 50 fresh groceries at its Hedge End, Hampshire and Stratford, Greater London branches, and 60 fresh and frozen items at the remainder of the stores.
The assortment includes pasta, rice, cereal, nuts, frozen fruit and the latest range of bake-at-home items such as all butter croissants and apricot twists.
Free paper bags are available or shoppers can bring their own containers. Two weighing stations are also installed where containers must be weighed twice – first empty and then filled.
Fill Your Own supports M&S’s sustainability drive, Plan A, which it relaunched this year. The plan includes an aim to reduce and reuse plastic and a target to have all its packaging made from widely recycled material by 2022.
Carmel McQuaid, head of sustainable business at M&S said Fill Your Own has been ‘hugely popular’ with customers. ‘They’ve told us that it’s easy to understand, offers a huge variety of the high-quality, great value M&S products they love and supports with portion control. Importantly, Fill Your Own is helping our customers – and our business – to reduce and reuse plastic and this initiative has the potential to save thousands of units each year.’
M&S surveyed of 2,200 adults through YouGov and found three-quarters of people said they were
consciously trying to reduce their use of plastic packaging and two thirds were more likely to consider using refill stations than a year ago.
- Find out more: 10 easy ways to reduce food waste at home
Morrisons has been testing ambient and frozen refills in three stores in Guiseley in Leeds, Skipton in North Yorkshire and Canning Town, East London since early 2019.
Items part of its selection include seeds, rice, cereal, coffee beans, dried fruits, pasta and frozen fruit, as well as a peanut butter dispenser, with Guiseley stocking 57 items, Skipton offering 16 products and Canning Town supplying 20 items.
Customers can either bring their own containers or buy a re-usable container from its homeware or kitchen aisles. The supermarket doesn’t stock reusable containers specifically designed for the packaging-free items.
Morrisons told Which? the initiative was introduced to help ‘reduce the amount of product packaging being used.’
The supermarket is also currently looking at how to bring refills to more stores, while considering how to make it Covid safe.
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The John Lewis-owned grocer began offering its Unpacked refillable range at its Botley Road, Oxford store in June 2019 in a trial scheduled to last eleven weeks.
It then installed at its Cheltenham, Gloucestershire store in September 2019, followed by Abingdon in Oxfordshire and Wallingford in Berkshire in November 2019. Wallingford then became the first UK supermarket to integrate packaging-free items into its regular aisles, rather than having a separate fixture in January 2021.
Waitrose stocks a range of around 64 products in each of the four stores, including frozen fruit and vegetables, loose, tea, popcorn rice, pasta, cereals, dried fruit and coffee, as well as Ecover washing-up liquid and detergent.
It plans to expand this range later in the year too.
There is a wide selection of reusable containers available to purchase as well – from cloth bread bags to glass kilner jars priced from £1, or shoppers can bring their own containers.
Waitrose published a report in January 2021 that showed its customers are ‘overwhelmingly supportive’ of its packaging-free food initiative. Over three quarters (80%) of M&S shoppers said they would be very likely to shop Unpacked again, and sales of packaging free items across the four Waitrose shops that stock the refillable items grew by almost 9% between January and June this year.
Marija Rompani, director of ethics and sustainability for Waitrose, said: ‘We are really beginning to find some momentum with customers demonstrating that this is how they might be prepared to shop with us in the future and we are especially encouraged by the response to moving the concept in-aisle to make it more of the norm when visiting us.’
Waitrose is also striving to make all its own brand packaging widely recycled, reusable or home compostable by 2023 and reduce single use plastic by 20% by 2021.
- Find out more: how to buy refillables
Do packaging-free items cost more?
To counteract any perceptions that buying packaging-free groceries may be pricier than packaged equivalents, the supermarkets that have zero-waste refill ranges have priced the items at a cheaper or equal rate to comparable packaged products.
The four packaging-free foods Aldi stocks, for example, are cheaper or the same price as the packaged items on its shelves.
- Packaging-free basmati rice is 11p per 100g. The packaged equivalent is £0.12 per 100g
- Packaging-free brown rice is 7p per 100g, as is the packaged equivalent
- Packaging-free penne pasta is 7p per 100g, as is the packaged equivalent
- Packaging-free wholewheat fusilli is 7p per 100g, as is its packaged equivalent
Asda, meanwhile, has its ‘Greener at Asda Price’ promise that outlines loose goods will never knowingly cost more than wrapped equivalents in any Asda store, while prices at the Central England Cooperative are set at two levels: 65p per 100g or 25p per 100g across all packaging-free items.
M&S and Morrisons’ packaging-free items are an average of 10% cheaper than packaged alternatives per 100g.
Both Morrisons and Waitrose said they priced its packaging-free products cheaper than packaged items to help incentivise sales.
- Find out more: How to recycle in the UK
(This story was updated on 28 July to add information about the new items The Central England Co-op added to its refill range.)