Refills: A Sustainable Solution

What if you could get refills for all of the products that you buy that come in containers?

We’ve become accustomed to the notion that every product must come in its own packaging, that this is “obvious” and that it’s the only way things can be done.

Every day I use a variety of container-based products (CBPs for short): shampoo, face-wash, toothpaste, liquid soap, orange juice, etc. etc. The list of CBPs goes on. This causes a huge strain on the environment. Companies use giant factories across the world to manufacture hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions of CBPs. For each CBP resources and energy are used to create the container, then all of these little containers are shipped all over the world in an inefficient manner.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get rid of most of them? I think such a world is possible.

This brings up several questions: Could this cause difficulties for brands to compete? After all, you recognize that this particular brand of sugar-water belongs to Pepsi because it comes in a CBP that has the Pepsi logo on it. And how are you to know what’s in your shampoo if it doesn’t have a container to list the ingredients?

Imagine the following:

A Different World

A consumer walks into a local grocery store in search of body wash. He grabs a sleek bottle of Product 5eX promising to make him more attractive to the opposite sex. Except, this isn’t a CBP, in fact, while the store’s isles are packed with various bottled products much as they are today, there’s not a single CBP to be found, what our gullible protagonist holds in his hands is actually an RBP—a refill-based-product.

After weeks of usage and several unsuccessful attempts at attracting a mate, our friend runs out of Product 5eX and decides that perhaps he hasn’t used it long enough and so drives back to the grocery store in search of more. However, instead of going back to the isle where he originally found it, he places the empty container, along with empty containers of toothpaste, face-wash, and 9-liter bottle of cola on a conveyor belt at the front of the store while swiping his credit card. After shopping around for various food products inside he’s ready to checkout, and so are his RBPs.

In such a world there are many possibilities. Perhaps you could use a generic container and simply use the product’s unique ID number to refill it. There could be a huge online database that matches product IDs with detailed information about each product such as nutrition facts, ingredients, etc. All with the latest information on each ingredient and links to further information.

Not So Different

In fact the concept of an RBP is not so foreign. Recently my local OfficeMax began offering refills for all ink cartridges. Refills have existed at restaurants as long as I’ve known.

While many of today’s containers are recyclable, recycling is not nearly as good as reusing and reducing. Recycling takes energy, and many of the things that you put into your recycling bin don’t actually get recycled for one reason or another. It does not really tackle the core issue.

Instead of creating and shipping millions of little bottles, companies could send entire vats of refillable goop all over the world. The RBP model is not just a giant win for the planet, it’s a boon for consumers and producers alike, as it would drive down the cost of production and therefore the cost of products.


There are certainly many questions that need to be addressed for such a world to become a reality. For example, the question of sanitation. How can you guarantee that a refilled product will be as fresh as a brand new one if the container has been opened? I’m sure that through various techniques and technologies such challenges can be overcome. Perhaps each major reseller can have its own mini-sanitizing doo-hickey that cleans the insides of containers. Like all engineering problems, the solutions are out there as long as someone is willing to put in the effort.

Think it’s a good idea? Pass it on. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Refills: A Sustainable Solution

  1. Reply

    rob wilke

    great blog again, i like how you think…

    maybe this down economy will get people thinking and/or doing that way, as sad as it is, I think the only motivator for the masses is money, so if RBPs are cheaper than the alternative, then the new day is born.

  2. Reply

    Greg Slepak Post author

    Thanks Rob! It probably won’t happen anytime soon unfortunately though, simply because it would require a significant change to the infrastructure of the entire system. Just looking at how long it’s taking them to go from gas to electric cars is a great example, where the move is from gas stations to electrical outlets. :-\

  3. Reply


    I read this post almost a year ago, and since then it’s been changing my life. (I really can’t express this sentiment without sounding hyperbolic, but I’m being completely sincere). I kept coming back to this idea- refill- long after I read your post. It’s so simple and so obvious. But as I’ve gradually changed to a refill lifestyle, I’ve realized that in practice, refilling is neither of those things. Many times it’s downright impossible, and often completely beyond my control as a consumer. Then, a month ago, I had a manic bout of motivation, in which I suddenly felt like I should start the store you are talking about. In doing some online research, I was actually shocked to find that no one out there is even discussing this on a holistic scale. This was the only commercial enterprise I could find that is embracing this philosophy comprehensively:
    Sure, there are bulk foods bins now popping up in grocery stores (Ward’s and the new Publix in Gainesville), but no store, it seems, is even thinking of trying to sell all of its products this way. Certainly not stores that the average consumer shops in. Right now, this refill kind of behavior and thinking are relegated to a small, liberal elite, and the products and companies that embrace even the mildest of sincere sustainable practices are only catering to this specific clientele. It’s esoteric, unfamiliar, and worst of all, unaffordable for most people. If we want the world to go green, we have to make green practices available to the world. We live in a convenience culture, where convenience drives consumer demand for cheap, portable and disposable packaging, which results in the omnipresence of these products. This culture has created a feedback-loop in the consumer cycle, where convenience of consumption and convenience of availability constantly reinforce each other, to the extent that there is no longer an alternative. If we want to realistically break this polluting packaging cycle, we have to make the alternative convenient. In fact, we have to make it not only as convenient as packaged consumption, we also have to provide incentives for this behavior that are more obvious and more direct than abstract and indirect benefits that people see for the environment- we have to make it cheaper. And actually, if you think about it, it already is. Buying something in bulk almost always dramatically slashes the unit price. Why? Because when you buy smaller amounts you’re paying more for the convenience of paying less. As the ratio of packaging to product shrinks, the profit margin also shrinks, and therefore must be bolstered with an increased unit price. The poorest people consistently pay some of the highest unit prices, because of their severely limited purchase power. This in itself creates its own feedback loop, reinforcing their poverty. But a refill store could eliminate this cycle, simply by buying the raw products in massive bulk, at the absolute cheapest unit price, (and the absolute cheapest distribution cost to the producer) and reselling them to the customers at a flat unit price markup, so people can buy as much or as little as they want of anything for the same price, without being penalized if they can’t afford a lot at any one time. It will discourage waste, because people won’t be coaxed into buying more than they need of perishable goods. This idea goes against the core of how consumer goods are marketed and sold, but I think it could actually work, because when anything sells the best in this country, it’s because it’s a dollar cheaper. I bought a domain name for a website to promote my/your idea. I don’t know how to make websites, and if you’re interested, I could sure use some help….

  4. Reply

    Greg Slepak Post author

    That’s really cool Adrienne, I’m thrilled that you’re interested in the idea. I’ll give you a call soon to chat about this (or you can call me if you still have my number).

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