A man is holding a jar beneath a nozzle labelled 'handwash'. He is pumping the liquid into the jar.

As it stands today, most wash-and-refill services are smaller, independent businesses. Is there a world wherein these services could achieve greater mainstream success? Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder of Circuthon Consulting, tells us about the market trends he’s noticed, highlights the companies leading the way, and advocates for creative yet convenient packaging solutions as the industry aims for sustainability.

A fully circular economy has many repercussions, not least of which is a dramatic reduction in manufacturing. If your computer is fully repairable and upgradable, suddenly its lifespan is 20 years, not 5 - manufacturing numbers are cut by 75%. This has huge implications for brand owners.

An equally dramatic shift in consumption could affect the packaging industry as reusability becomes the real holy grail. Traceability will apply to reusable items delivered by the latest blockchain technology. This tracking opens up many new avenues for ecosystem innovation in the world of consumer goods.

An advanced industrial internet of things (IoT) delivered by blockchain technologies would permit this decentralized information system and become a disruptive innovation which could provide an information platform for all supply chain members. In fact, this is happening already - circular packaging innovators are progressing fast as investment pours into the sector.

More importantly, big players in the packaging world are already embracing this new world of reusability. They already have clients, sales teams, warehouses, and trucks. They can sell as soon as a new SKU is live. Much of this work is done in “stealth mode”, but an astute observer can see pilots happening; investments in circular innovations coming from the biggest players in the market.

There is much emphasis on start-ups in the press: lots of bright young people with bright ideas. In fact, it’s the existing players who have the most to gain from circular packaging – but they need to up their game. Linearity as usual has already been replaced by circularity as usual - notionally and legislatively, at least.

Where is this switch to “forever usable and reusable” already happening? In foodservice packaging, especially in cups. Every festival, every stadium (a few notable exceptions), and quick service restaurant now boasts a reusable cup scheme. And dozens more are coming!

It’s something I’ve been tracking for 10 years, and the pace of growth has never been greater. It’s spreading across all continents, with umpteen business models in operation. But one thing is for certain – it’s here to stay. Single-use polystyrene cups have been banned, and many other cup substrates are considered undesirable by legislators.

So, who are the players ready to disrupt the market?

We see a lot of companies that sell a one-time personal care container where customers add their own water, subsequently dropping in a concentrate, wrapped in PVA film. The rigid container is manufactured once, and for years to come, the only purchase is the concentrates. This market is in its infancy, but the commercial and environmental logic for the shopper is undeniable – and, as circular behaviours go, it’s an easy one to adopt. Anyone who has ever used Berocca or Alka-Seltzer will be perfectly happy.

Normally it’s inconvenience that stops circular packaging innovation, and here we have something ultraconvenient. You can store a year’s supply of a product in the bathroom cabinet. Imagine trying to squeeze in 12 shampoo bottles or 12 tubes of shaving gel!

And it’s not just in the bathroom where we are seeing keepers and refills replacing single-use packaging. It works best when it’s really, really simple.

Imagine you leave your refill water bottle at home, but you don’t want to spend €20-30 on a new one. What if you could buy pre-packaged water for less than €3.00, already chilled and in a bottle which can be refilled time and time again?

This is precisely what brands such as Re:Water and The Whent are doing – first in foodservice, but edging closer and closer to retail. Others will surely follow, and we will see rinse aid, fruit juice, and all kinds of other products popping up.

The joy with these products is that the consumer does the wash and refill. There is no machinery, business model innovation or behaviour change required. It’s a surefire hit.

In the UK we now have competition in circular home delivery, from one very established player and its recently arrived rival.

Milk&More has been delivering refill bottles of milk, plant milk and juices to doorsteps for decades. In the last few years, the number of products has increased, and earlier this year they announced a trial with newcomer Dizzie. Now all kinds of foods can be delivered to households, and the used packs are left on the doorstep for reprocessing. For the lazy shopper, unaware of where the zero-waste store is, this is heaven. Just a few metres from the doorstep to the kitchen, decant into a storage jar and return to the doorstep. A blissful, no-hassle experience.

Now Milk&More has competition in the form of Modern Milkman. Milk, milkshakes and juices in washable refill bottles, a whole range of household refill items. The instructions for use could not be easier: “To use, fill your glass bottle with lukewarm water and drop in a tab. Let it dissolve completely before you put the nozzle on.” As simple as that. After the initial bottle purchase, you just get tabs delivered to your doorstep – any morning that you want – without even getting dressed.

So, this is where innovators are now concentrating their attention – convenience is king and it will continue to be so. Inconvenient packaging (no matter how worthy or how low the LCA) is not going to succeed in the European market of 2022. Make it easy for the customer, and sales will rocket.

My favourite example of refill which I’ve seen recently comes from France and is now being rolled out in export markets: Foodles. What a business!

  • Dishes served in reusable containers to reduce waste


  • Menus based on fresh, local, seasonal produce for a healthy, sustainable diet
  • Digitally operated smart fridges

The channel is different; the loop is completely closed; the experience is superior to a work canteen and will apply massively to millennials on the move.

Looking at these super convenient examples in a whole range of categories and channels, there are two things which are absolutely clear.

1) Get the formula right and you have a multimillion-euro disruptive business taking sales away from single-use packaging with upscale refill experiences that are an improvement on the status quo.

2) Non-traditional thinkers will pile into this market once the Circular Economy Action Plan really kicks in. There were few good exemplars of where refill was working (traditional retail has seen lots of failures). But new channels, old channels, and digital channels can all support reuse in different ways. Once entrepreneurs and big businesses start to copy and paste these ideas, wherein shoppers can access wash and refill solutions conveniently, they will become a real threat to linearity and single-use packaging.

I think we know who will suffer first, and right now the mantra must be to reimagine or disappear. Stay linear at your peril.