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Study reveals the refill capital of the UK

Global sustainability efforts are more important than ever as we continue to find solutions, such as investing in refillable packaging, to minimise our impact on the planet.

Reusability has significantly influenced the purchasing habits of global consumers in recent years, with 43% of consumers declaring it important. However, 29% also reject the concept due to a lack of availability and concerns about hygiene.

Refillable packaging can be utilised by a variety of industries to allow customers to limit their carbon footprint when restocking on popular items, such as food and beverage, beauty and personal care and domestic cleaning supplies and many more.

But which UK city offers the best refillable packaging facilities?

Ahead of World Refill Day, Lifestyle Packaging conducted a study to identify the volume of refilling stations and independent zero waste shops in each location, as well as the amount of average monthly refill related Google searches. The data for each city was then divided by the population per capita (per 100,000 people) and given a score out of ten.

Claiming the top spot and the ‘refill capital’ title is Oxford, with a score of 7.1 out of 10. The city has the third highest number of water refill stations in the UK, with 244 locations (152 per capita) and is in the top five in the country for providing lunch refill locations, with 23 across the municipality (14.37 per capita).

Oxford is also ninth highest for its coffee refill offering, with 94 locations (59 per capita) and is joint seventh place for its four cleaning product refill stores (2.5 per capita). However, there are no zero waste stores in the area.

The city is committed to sustainable practices, as the council’s sustainability strategy includes packaging and waste management goals that encourage residents to reuse and recycle products and packaging.

Between 2021 to 2022, Oxford was named one of the highest performing councils in the UK for waste disposal, as residents recycled or reused 58.2% of household waste.

In close second is Norwich, scoring 7 out of 10. With a population of 143,118, the East England city has one of the smallest populations, yet it has the highest number of cleaning product refill facilities with four locations (2.79 per capita) and has the most refill related searches at 4430 per month on average (3095 per capita).

Norwich also has the second highest amount of coffee refill locations, with 82 facilities (57 per capita) and is seventh for lunch refills and refillable cleaning product amenities, with four (2.79 per capita) and four (2.79 per capita).

According to the most recent report from the Norfolk Waste Partnership, the wider county has at least 15 reuse shops alongside recycling centres and classic packaging materials such as glass, plastic, and metal made up 24, 11, and six percent of the region’s recycling.

In third place, with a score of 6.1 out of 10 is Devon’s capital city of Exeter, which has 254 water refill stations – the highest number per capita at 196.

Exeter is fourth for the highest number of coffee refill, zero waste and plastic free shops and cleaning product refill locations per capita. It has 56 coffee refill stations (43 per capita), two refill shops (1.55 per capita) and three cleaning refill places (2.32 per capita). However, it has just one lunch refill location (0.77 per capita).

Despite its high ranking, Exeter is one of the worst performing councils in the southwest for recycling rates and is beaten by over 95% of English councils.

It was also reported that the recycling rate for Devon fell to 49.8% last year.

Bristol and Cambridge are in fourth and fifth place, with overall refill scores of 5.8 and 5.3, respectively.

Bristol has the most water refill stations in the UK, with 742 locations (157 per capita) and 226 places for its residents to refill on coffee (48 per capita).

Meanwhile, Cambridge has 152 water (105 per capita), 40 coffee (28 per capita), 11 lunch (7.6 per capita) and three locations to refill cleaning products (2.07 per capita).

Brighton (4.7/10), Bath (4.6/10), Cardiff (4.4/10), Lincoln (3.9/10), and Worcester (3.8/10) complete the top ten locations with the highest overall refill scores.

In contrast, the city with the least refill facilities is Wakefield, with an overall score of 0.4 out of 10.

The West Yorkshire city has no zero waste, refill or plastic free shops or cleaning product refill zones, three lunch refill stations (0.85 per capita) and only seven coffee refill stations (two per capita).

Also, with 0.4, the city of Salford is the second worst location for refillable options – scoring zero for its lack of zero waste, refill or plastic free shops and cleaning and lunch refill stations.

The third worst city for offering refillable options is Bradford, scoring 0.7 out of 10, with no lunch refill stations or zero waste, refill or plastic free shops.

Completing the bottom five for the UK’s least refillable cities are Doncaster and Inverness, with 0.8 out of 10. Similarly, neither city's residents can access zero waste, refillable or plastic free shops.

Steve Brownett Gale of Lifestyle Packaging commented on the results: ‘It is a shame to see that some UK cities aren’t providing more refill facilities for residents, especially as many are expressing a willingness to shop more sustainably.

‘Here are some things businesses should consider before taking the leap into offering refillable packaging solutions:

Ensure there is a demand for it.

‘The product requires reasonable demand before you can begin offering refillable options.

‘Check the products’ sale data and whether it has a high volume of repeat customers.’

Consider how much energy is produced manufacturing it.

‘Look into the amount of energy needed to produce the product, considering the manufacturing and transporting processes.

‘Refillable solutions are only environmentally friendly if they help reduce your carbon footprint long term.’

Check the materials – are they refillable and recyclable?

‘Products packaged in sustainable packaging materials like glass, aluminium, paper, cardboard, metal and wood are good options that fit both categories and can be recycled repeatedly.

‘Packaging skincare products in glass, for example, is a great option that is more climate friendly as it saves energy producing raw materials without losing quality.’

Provide clear instructions on how to refill

‘Without the correct guidance on how to refill the product, customers will abandon them altogether.

‘Ensure the packaging has clear instructions, on the box, in a small leaflet or on the bottle itself. Additionally, reiterate them online via your website or social media channels to help maintain a clear product journey and create a circular economy.’

Consistently review the purchase journey

‘Once you are providing the refill option, see if there is anything more you can do to improve the customer experience by listening to feedback and reviews.

‘Consider regularly reviewing things like how easy it is to purchase a refill, the materials used and how effective they are for packaging the product.

‘Plus, ensure it is clear to the customer what to do if and when they want to recycle the product. Supporting the customer for the entirety of a product’s lifecycle truly embraces the circular economic structure and will allow you to achieve sustainability goals.

‘And, if you are unsure, enlist the help of a specialist packaging provider who can assist you with a custom packaging design that is tailor made for your brand.’

You can view the full data here.


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