Last year, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer became the first major retailers to introduce new refill or bring-your-own-container initiatives in response to growing concerns from consumers around excessive plastic waste from packaging.
Big 4 grocer Asda followed suit by kicking of 2020 with plans to launch a refill scheme at its Leeds store this May.
Loose fruit and veg and a ban on plastic bags are increasingly becoming common in grocers nationwide, but refill schemes are an emerging trend.
Research from GlobalData has found that 71.3 per cent of Brits are willing to use food refill services in order to cut down on waste and improve food sustainability for the environment.
While it’s seen as a practical way to shop for the future, some may argue the initiative drastically reduces shelf life. A major reason supermarkets use packaging is to protect food and prevent waste – particularly with fresh food.
“Plastic is a brilliant material,” Giles Gibbons, chief executive of strategy consultancy Good Business, told Retail Gazette his unpopular opinion.
“It’s easy to produce, it’s lightweight, durable – and it makes food last longer.”
In fact, trade body British Plastics Federation found that barrier plastic can typically give food 18 months of shelf life without the need for preservatives.
Zana Busby, director at analyst firm Retail Reflections, agreed. She argued that despite its environmental drawbacks, “single-use plastic can have a dramatic effect on the shelf life of food”.
“Selling grapes in plastic bags or trays has been shown to reduce in-store waste by 20 per cent, and just 1.5g of plastic packaging can extend the shelf life of a cucumber from three to 14 days,” she said.
Waitrose recently launched a scheme where customers were able to fill up or refill their own containers with a range of products in a bid to reduce waste. It initially launched as a trial before being rolled out to several other stores.
M&S stepped-up its commitment to reducing plastic waste by introducing a scheme that encourages customers to bring their own reusable containers to its Market Place food-to-go counters, whereby they receive a 25p discount off each meal for doing so.
More recently, Asda unveiled plans to launch its first sustainability store at its Middleton branch in Leeds as part of its latest commitment to be environmentally friendly.
Daniel Harvey, manager at tech consultancy BearingPoint, said whether Asda’s trial will be successful or not depends on how the layout is designed to maximise space utilisation and enable customers to practically shop the range. He also said it depended on whether the dispensers minimise the risk of contamination.
“Maintaining the quality of the product through the earlier stages of the supply chain should be no more of a challenge, the challenges will come in store,” he said.
“The success of the trials will be driven by making the shopping experience work practically for products, customers and colleagues.”
Waitrose’s Unpacked initiative saw the grocer go plastic-free on 200 lines in its 24,600sq ft Botley Road store in Oxford in June last year. The majority of packaging was removed from 160 lines, replaced with a refill station for food items like cereal or pasta, and an array of loose fruit and veg.