Meet the circular grocers

Grocery stores are getting a plastic-free upgrade, as traceable refillable packaging companies boom. But it's no mean feat getting a premium service into supermarkets, and these brands are taking on the challenge.
circular grocers 16x9 hero

Policymakers are going after plastic – and grocers are ground zero. In France, 20 percent of larger supermarkets' floor space will need to be devoted to zero waste refills by 2030. In the UK, the Extended Producer Responsibility bill will make food suppliers responsible for recycling product packaging, while the Plastic Packaging Tax is incentivizing retailers to use more recycled material. Germany began enforcing its own Packaging Act at the beginning of 2023, requiring takeaway food businesses to offer customers reusable packaging. 

With that in mind, retailers are realizing they need to step up their game – and a new wave of businesses is helping grocers recycle. 

Companies such as Dizzie, Bower Collective, Pieter Pot, The Rounds and Modern Milkman are taking an old-school idea – doorstep deliveries of household goods – and updating it with tech-fueled logistics. Cartons, bottles and pouches can be traced as they are returned to the grocer and reused, allowing for a fuller range of products to go plastic-free, from oat milk and coffee grounds to shower gel. 

While it's currently a premium service targeting a premium eco-conscious consumer, those in the circular economy believe that these tech advances could help the bigger sustainability picture in the long run.

Don't call it a refill shop

Unlike refill shops – which have faced customer retention challenges and where the customer chips in a lot of the labor (tote bags, filling in-store, washing containers) – this model combines convenience for the consumer with data intelligence for the business, keeping tabs on individual units of packaging. 

‘I'm a big advocate for zero-waste shops, but the experience isn't great,’ says Nick Torday, CEO of Bower Collective. Bower offers more than 400 varieties of eco home and personal care products, delivered via refillable pouches; customers send empties back in a pre-paid envelope for Bower to reuse. 

‘We have around 170,000 customers, and many are long-term loyal customers who get things on subscription,’ he adds.

There are also issues behind the scenes that companies such as Bower have had to deal with in order to improve reuse: ‘When we launched, we were washing the packaging, but with products like laundry detergent it's a nightmare,’ says Nick. ‘It's like an Ibiza foam party.’ 

The company's Bower Pack ‘designs out’ the need for washing due to a special one-way valve that means no air can come in or out, ensuring hygiene without washing. This means the packs are used on average seven to 10 times before Bower sends them to specialist recycler Maltings in Yorkshire, UK.  

Recycling 2.0

The need for quality assurance has also created a B2B market working behind the scenes to make circularity in a grocery setting smarter. 

‘Products need to have correct best-before dates, and regulation for consumer safety is a blocker for reuse because you're printing onto packaging and rendering it single-use,’ says Claire Rampen, co-founder of Reath, which provides software to reusable packaging companies. ‘That sparked the idea for a digital service with a unique ID, so that when they were scanned you could capture information.’

That's also going to be more important as these solutions scale up. Reath started working with UK supermarket Marks and Spencer in 2021, enabling the traceability of the big bulk containers used for its refill stations in store. ‘They need that oversight and data.’

Extra data can also be a selling point for consumers who want to track their impact: ‘On the side of Bower Collective's pouches they have a QR code that the consumer scans and they can see very transparently how many times it's been used,’ Claire adds.

Supermarket buyers beware

But overhauling entrenched packaging and waste systems isn't cheap – and for now those costs are being passed onto a customer base already squeezed by the cost-of-living crisis. The Rounds – a circular grocer based in Philadelphia – for example, charges a $10 membership and focuses on premium goods (a jar of wild raw wildflower honey costs $16.50).

Algramo, a Chilean refill business that wanted to democratize the price by offering it cheaper at refill stations, has already been working with multinational grocer Lidl on a UK in-store refill pilot for detergent and laundry liquids. The customer uptake has been excellent, says UK manager Chris Baker, and the future aim is to ‘build a reuse pattern that's a gateway into other reuse’. 

However, there are still hesitations from major supermarket chains, which those pushing these solutions chalk up to siloed business divisions – a product-buying team that only sees the extra cost of traceable packaging may not have insight into the costs incurred by the packaging tax, says Claire.

‘[Supermarkets] put together their product profit and loss with the taxation out of sight,’ says Chris. ‘Taxes are paid from a different department. We're trying to get them to see the overall business case for this.’  

There are signs of change, however. Dizzie is switching to a new model, closing its online customer store to focus on business-to-business revenue. Bower Collective, too, is in talks with supermarket brands. 

Our reliance on plastic is stubborn – some 2.5 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging enters the UK market every year. But just as this reliance started slowly, perhaps another revolution – this time around reuse – is only getting started.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

You might like these, too