A Case for Refillables?

I have a confession to make. I have always supported refillable bottles, but deep down, I never really thought the idea was economically viable in our global marketplace. However, after my trip to Germany — where refillables are available for nearly all beverages — (in all shapes, sizes, glass or PET), I believe the case can be made for refillables today.

What is especially impressive is that refillable glass bottles have an average of 50 lives, while refillable PET usually lasts up to 25 servings. The plastic crates last for 100 trips. This begs the question about Canadian brewers and their industry standard glass bottle that only has an average of 15 lives. Why the gap?

The difference is a cultural one. Germans are un-phased by the physical scars of reuse, like the white erosion rings that develop at the top and bottom of a glass bottle, or the many scratches that can render a PET bottle dull and opaque. Canadian brewers have no choice but to limit the potential life of an industry standard beer bottle in order to complete against their gleaming competition.

Today, in Germany, more than 85 per cent of all beer, 37 per cent of mineral water, 34 per cent of soft drinks, and 10 per cent of fruit juices are sold in refillable bottles. Refillables bear a lower deposit level of eight and 15 Eurocents (worth 13 and 24 cents Canadian) versus the 25 Eurocent deposit on non-refillables. Wholesalers play a critical role in the refillable system, by purchasing, storing and distributing full goods to retailers, and from the back end; collecting and re-distributing empty refillables back to bottlers.

In a study by the IFEU Institute in Germany, both refillable PET and glass bottles ranked more favorably compared to non-refillable aluminum cans and PET in terms of: material consumption, global warming potential, acidification and summer smog. The German Packaging Institute reports the difference in greenhouse gas emissions between all nonalcohol beverages packaged in refillable containers versus single-serve containers is over one million tonnes of CO2e.

The Herald Tribune (“Putting pollution costs on the table,” April 26, 2008) examined the life cycle impact of two bottles of wine consumed in New York City. The first bottle came from California transported by truck, and the other from France shipped and then trucked. Interestingly, the California bottle resulted in almost double the carbon footprint (2,514 grams of C02e per bottle), primarily due to the impact of transportation, which accounts for a whopping 57 per cent of the total footprint. Containers (barrel and bottle) accounts for an additional 25 per cent of the footprint. While lower in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the French wine still resulted in 1,371 grams of C02e per bottle, of which transportation accounted for 33 per cent and containers came to 35 per cent of the footprint.

As crude oil hovers at high levels, the economics of modern refillable solutions are beginning to look more attractive. Imagine the possibilities…

• Large retailers offering non-alcohol drinks on-tap, with a built-in volume counter. This would allow consumers to either bring their own container from home, or buy one in-store. Retailers would invest in an in-store carbonation/ mixing system (like those found in large bars, movie theatres etc.) and would pipe-in local water. Less costs, less shelve space, and an ideal option for high volume buyers on a budget.

• Ship foreign beverages in bulk and have them filled locally in standard refillable bottles.

• Promote local beverage production, like wine and beer, which can stimulate the economics for a refillables program in the region.

• Utilize reverse logistic (back-hauling) to eliminate additional freight associated with container transportation.

We are facing interesting times. Several municipalities and businesses are considering bottled water bans, the cost of raw materials continues to rise, and the high cost transportation is making local production more attractive. Those that are able to think beyond the classic one-way distribution model, to one that reduces energy at all stages of production, and ultimately delivers the refreshment of choice to the consumer, may indeed end-up on top.

Perhaps a case can be made for refillables. This is something that Canada can learn from Europe.

Clarissa Morawski is principal of CM Consulting based in Peterborough, Ontario. Contact Clarissa at morawski@ca.inter.net