Headway is an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. We look for promising solutions, notable experiments and lessons from what’s been tried.
Every week, Angela Espinoza Pierson looked at her recycling bin — filled with detergent jugs, shampoo bottles and clamshell containers that once held strawberries — with mixed feelings. Sure, it was a lot of plastic. But it was going to be recycled.
Or so she thought. Then her husband sent her some articles revealing that less than 6 percent of the country’s plastic gets recycled, and that even recycled plastic can only be reused once or twice. Ms. Espinoza Pierson, who lives in Buda, Texas, was shocked. “All the plastic that we thought was getting recycled, it’s not really, and it’s just going to sit there,” she said.
Determined to cut back on her plastic consumption, Ms. Espinoza Pierson got a starter kit from a company selling refillable household cleaners. In it were tablets containing concentrated hand soap as well as multi-surface, glass and bathroom cleaners — and four empty containers. She filled each one with tap water, then dropped in a tablet and watched it dissolve. If she is happy with the cleaners, she will order more tablets but reuse the containers. No new plastic required.
Given plastic’s detrimental effects on the environment, nearly three-quarters of Americans say they are trying to reduce their reliance on single-use plastic, according to Pew Research Center. Since plastic is everywhere and avoiding it altogether is extraordinarily difficult, some, like Ms. Espinoza Pierson, have revived a once-customary practice: refilling containers rather than disposing of them. If just 10 to 20 percent of plastic packaging were reused, a report from the World Economic Forum estimates, the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean could be cut in half.
Though environmentally minded consumers have long been able to refill containers by making their own concoctions or shopping at certain stores — like the now-proliferating number of zero-waste boutiques — finding mass market refillable products has been more challenging.
That’s started to change. Over the past few years, Windex, owned by SC Johnson, introduced concentrates that dissolve in water; Dove began selling a deodorant stick that slots into a reusable case; and The Body Shop added refill stations to half its American stores.
These are tiny experiments in a country that generates nearly 500 pounds of plastic waste per person, per year. But Matt Prindiville, the chief executive of Upstream, a reuse advocacy organization and consultancy, says his organization has seen the number of reuse-refill start-ups grow from a dozen in 2019 to more than 150 today. “If you asked me about this three years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed at how quickly the interest in the sector has blown up,” Mr. Prindiville said. “Not just from the do-gooders, but from the biggest brands in the world.”
‘We’re Just Shipping Around Water’
American beverage companies switched to single-use plastic containers during the 1970s, largely because it saved money, said Bart Elmore, an associate professor of environmental history at Ohio State University. No longer would companies have to collect or clean refillable bottles.
Since throwing things away, rather than cleaning and reusing them, was convenient, too, it seemed like progress. An ad for Toss’ems, a single-use baby bottle introduced in 1971, summed up the ethos with a question: “In this disposable age, is there a reason for the non-disposable bottle?” Manufacturers and consumers alike fell in love with the lightweight and unbreakable material. More than a third of all plastic ever produced has been used for packaging, most of it created and disposed of in the same year.
Today, the pressure to reduce corporate carbon footprints is forcing a second look at all that plastic packaging. “Reuse, for some types of products and packaging,” Mr. Prindiville said, “can put a huge dent in reducing those climate impacts.”
Household cleaners seem particularly primed for a refill revolution. Whereas shampoo and conditioner involve complicated chemical formulas, many cleaners can be easily concentrated and reconstituted with water. In fact, that’s what makes up the bulk of traditional cleaning products, leading Mr. Prindiville to describe the current system this way: “We’re just shipping around water. And that’s dumb.”
In contrast, the concentrated surface cleaners sold by Grove Collaborative each contain 1 ounce of liquid, far less than a standard 16-ounce bottle of ready-to-use cleaner, and thus require less fuel to transport. Grove’s spray bottles are meant to be reused, and its concentrates are packaged in glass or aluminum — materials that, unlike plastic, can be recycled over and over.
Grove’s products are now on shelves in more than 5,000 stores, including Target, CVS and Walmart, and the company has seen its net revenue from refillables grow by more than 600 percent since 2018. But with $322 million in total revenue, it is a tiny player in the $30 billion home care market.
The Clorox Company, on the other hand, has a huge reach. Last year, the $7.1 billion company, which sells products in 100 countries, stepped into the refillable market with cleaning spray concentrates that can be emptied into a reusable plastic spray bottle. (Packaging accounts for more than half of all trigger spray manufacturers’ greenhouse gas emissions, transportation for another third.)
This product has been in the works since 2019, when Clorox pledged to halve its virgin plastic and fiber packaging by 2030. Jodi Russell, the vice president of research and development for Clorox’s cleaning division, was one of the people tasked with making it happen.
Along with her colleagues, Ms. Russell, who is a chemical engineer, spent the better part of three years formulating the concentrate, developing the supply chains to manufacture it, and sourcing longer-lasting bottles and spray triggers.
Though refillables account for just 5 percent of all trigger-spray sales, Ms. Russell is eager to see that figure grow. Concentrated cleaners not only help manufacturers lower transportation costs and reduce their carbon footprint, she says, but also help retailers by reducing the need for shelf space for bulky bottles.
But research commissioned by Clorox notes that unless all manufacturers adopt refillables, consumers will be confused, ultimately, Ms. Russell said, “destroying all of the economic value.” That has led Clorox to become somewhat evangelical about concentrated refillables, hosting presentations at conferences and funding an assessment that showed that switching from ready-to-use trigger sprays to concentrated refills could cut cleaning manufacturers’ greenhouse gas emissions from trigger sprays by at least 58 percent.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic. Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the anti-plastic pollution organization The Last Beach Cleanup, noted that many cleaning products are housed in PET or HDPE, two types of plastic with relatively high recycling rates. So she is less concerned about them — and far more concerned about the packaging of other products.
“Where these companies should be focusing is on this vast portfolio of everything else that isn’t recyclable, that is single use and that often becomes plastic pollution,” she said, pointing to SC Johnson’s Ziploc bags and Clorox’s Hidden Valley ranch dipping cups. “This is just a classic example of big corporations doing a stunt over here on something that’s not the main issue to distract from all the single-use plastic they’re pushing out.”
(In an emailed statement, Alexis Limberakis, senior director of sustainability at The Clorox Company, noted that Hidden Valley Ranch bottles, which make up the majority of that brand’s packaging, are made from PET or HDPE, and that the dipping cups “represent a small portion” of Clorox’s portfolio.)
The Rocky Road to a Refill Revolution
The biggest roadblock to refills, however, may be consumers. While Americans say they are concerned about plastic, persuading them to switch products — especially to ones that require an extra step and have a higher upfront cost — is another story.
Kate White, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, studies what motivates consumers to adopt pro-environmental behaviors. Beyond the perceived inconvenience of refilling in general, she said cleaning routines are deeply ingrained, noting: “If you use Tide, it’s quite likely that’s what your family used.”
Another challenge is that, unlike cars or clothes, cleaning products are literally hidden under the sink. This reduces “social influence,” which Dr. White called one of the “main drivers of sustainable behavior.”
To that end, Dr. White said refillables could receive a boost if they become “connected to a particular identity,” especially one that is “bougie or fancy.” But that’s a fate environmental advocates are trying to avoid. As Upstream’s Mr. Prindiville put it: “We don’t want reuse to be the new organic, where you have the wealthier part of the population consuming one way and everybody else consuming a different way.”
At the moment, most refillable products are more expensive than their ready-to-use counterparts. A Grove starter kit, for example, costs much more than a ready-to-use spray from Mrs. Meyer’s, a brand also marketed as “natural.” But refills cost slightly less, which allows consumers to recoup costs over time if they continue reusing the bottle. “We don’t have the scale today to deliver at the lowest cost,” said Stuart Landesberg, a founder of Grove and the company’s chief executive. “But it’s not like we’re making a Tesla and everyone else is driving a Camry. We’re in the same ballpark.”
Ms. Russell of Clorox is confident that costs will shrink as the refill market grows. The company had to invest in consumer marketing, new manufacturing equipment and additional packaging with user instructions — costs that could eventually fall. According to research commissioned by Clorox, the market will reach a tipping point when concentrated refills account for more than half of cleaning spray sales. “That’s really when the scale is unlocked,” Ms. Russell said.
Both advocates and business owners are hoping that moment arrives soon.
“When I think about the steps we need to take, No. 1 is move people to refillables,” Mr. Landesberg said. “It’s incredible that we, as a society, feel entitled to create garbage that will last forever for something we’re going to use for 90 minutes in aggregate. That is an insane paradigm.”
What’s Your Relationship to Recycling?
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.