Embracing Dispensing Over Refill and Return: A Sustainable and Practical Approach to Packaging

Unbelievably: over 300 million tons of plastic waste are produced globally each year, with a significant portion being packaging that ends up in landfills or pollutes our oceans.  Finding sustainable reuse alternatives to single-use packaging is critical, and two main approaches have emerged: refill and return systems. Both aim to reduce waste and create a more circular economy, but the question remains – which method is more practical and beneficial for consumers, manufacturers, and the environment?

This blog explores the current limitations of traditional/historical refill methods, the proposed return method and why hybrid dispensing models like Good Filling Stations prove to be the most logical solution to plastic waste in the CPG industry.

The Traditional Refill Method: The True Price of Convenience

83% of global consumers say they are extremely or somewhat concerned about the environmental impact of packaging (McKinsey). As of 2023, there were around 1,300 stores that focused on zero waste, and the idea of refill/zero waste stores has grown in popularity over the years. While refilling isn’t a new concept, traditional refill models like zero waste stores often face logistical limitations that can hinder broader adoption.


On the consumer side, refill stores may not may not be readily accessible in all locations, requiring travel for consumers (while carrying sticky/messy bottles). Not to mention that it is rare to find a zero waste store that offers multiple brands, scents and products for your home and personal care needs. This can be inconvenient and time-consuming, possibly steering away future customers who are considering adopting this refill mindset.


For businesses, the overhead costs of operating a dedicated refill or zero waste store (paying rent, managing inventory, hiring staff, etc.) can make it incredibly challenging to offer low prices, stay true to their reduction and reuse goals and to scale to more locations.

The Return Method: A Logistical and Financial Challenge

Another approach gaining traction is the return model. According to the 2022 National Zero Waste Council report, it requires reverse logistics for collecting used packaging, designing new products compatible with return systems, and significant investments in production lines capable of handling returned containers.  Said differently, it proposes that we overhaul the global supply chain.


This approach, while well-intentioned, faces significant logistical challenges and financial hurdles. The return model often involves collecting used containers, transporting them to dedicated cleaning facilities, cleaning them, transporting them to dedicated refilling facilities and refilling them on assembly lines before transporting them to stores.


This process can be labor-intensive and costly, translating into higher prices for consumers when compared to readily available single-use options, which often benefit from tax subsidies. Not to mention- there are always concerns about satisfactory sanitation and product quality when a container is mass-processed without being inspected for cracks, leftover residue or faults.


This also creates a moral dilemma for businesses: Do you take the extra effort to clean a hard-to-clean bottle or just recycle it for free? Do you ship or put out a bottle with wrinkled labels or a dent, or again just recycle it in favor of a better-looking bottle? The worst part is that these decisions are all made behind multiple closed doors where every incentive is towards profit maximization, not waste savings.

Good Filling Stations: A New Dispensing Model For The Future 

The Best Parts of Refill and Return

Mimicking the agency that comes from the refill method, our user-friendly self-service stations allow consumers to dispense a wide range of household products (laundry detergent, dish soap, etc.) and even beverages directly into any container they bring- in any size they choose. Like refill stores, this approach empowers consumers to participate in the process, reducing the overall costs and logistical complexities associated with reverse logistics.  Also like refill stores, we recognize that the act of cleaning and refilling the bottle is a burden for some consumers, and seek ways to make it easy, painless, significantly cheaper and fun to account for this added ask.

Like the return method, Good Filling Stations offer unparalleled convenience. Consumers can refill their favorite products whenever needed, and within a matter of seconds.  Our stations are as convenient if not more conveniently located than most grocery stores.

Like the grocery return model, our machines offer the flexibility to stock a wide range of name-brand products all from one machine.  Some machines can even stock up to 16 different brands, scents and product types all from one single system- giving consumers the choices they want and need.

What Makes Dispensing Even Better

Here at Good Filling, we believe our dispensing model can be a cost-effective and convenient solution for both consumers and businesses.  Our innovative Good Filling Stations eliminate the need for prices to include brick and mortar rent and store employee salaries.  They're also open 24/7 and accessible where you live and work- increasing accessibility and awareness.  The consumer also doesn't have to worry about weighing the bottle, tagging the bottle and checking out- as you would at a refill store.


The latest dispensing model championed by Good Filling Stations offers several advantages over the return system. First, it's inherently more cost-effective. By eliminating the need for dedicated collection, cleaning, and refilling facilities- our dispensing stations reduce operational costs, potentially leading to lower prices for consumers. For example, refilling at a Good Filling Dispensing Station is 20-30% cheaper than buying products from Amazon or the grocery store.  The lack of transportation and logistics also means significantly less CO2.

Our new model empowers consumers in a way that swapping out (returning) containers doesn't.  They choose how much product they need and have control over the type of container they use; fostering a sense of agency and environmental responsibility. We’re taking that one step further with UX that makes dispensing rewarding by presenting metrics about the session, customer, and machine sustainability impact.

The return model, with its focus on standardized packaging, could pose challenges for small businesses that are struggling to compete with larger corporations that can afford system-wide changes. Limiting the packaging options could reduce consumer choice and convenience. While standardization might streamline some aspects of the return process, it sacrifices flexibility and potentially diminishes the user experience in ways that our dispensing system celebrates.


The Path Forward for Sustainable Packaging

In the race to find sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics, models like those offered by Good Filling present a compelling solution. They are cost-effective, logistically simpler, offer greater convenience and give more choice for consumers compared to alternatives.

By promoting refill and investing in infrastructure that supports it, we can create a more sustainable future with less waste and empower consumers and brands to be active participants in the solution. Let's shift our focus from the complex and potentially restrictive return models to the practical and user-friendly world of dispensing.

Together, by embracing Good Filling, we can:

  • Reduce plastic waste: Eliminating the need for single-use packaging, refill stations contribute to a cleaner planet and healthier oceans.

  • Create a circular economy: Dispensing promotes resource efficiency and keeps valuable materials like bottles/pumps in circulation and at their highest value position: with the customer.

  • Empower consumers: We empower consumers to make conscious choices and reduce their plastic footprints. 

  • Support sustainable businesses: By choosing Good Filling, consumers can support companies dedicated to innovative and environmentally friendly solutions. This is most often small, local, and under-represented businesses.

The future of packaging is not about "throw-away" convenience. It's about refilling, reusing, and taking responsibility for the products we create and consume. Let's join forces and make dispensing the new normal. 

Contact our team today to learn more about bringing a Good Filling Station to your building or business. 

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