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Why are refills better for the environment?

  • by Jacqueline Smith
  • 4 min read

Refill bottles on shelf

We know that recycling is better than single use waste, and while it is great to recycle (and we all definitely should do more of it!), it's not the full solution by far. One step further than recycling is reuse - to use something again and again.

There are a lot of facts and figures below, which I hope isn't too over whelming. I wanted to share with you why refill is so important, and why I have chosen to launch a refill range. It would be great to hear your thoughts!

Why refill is better

In the UK 1.43 billion plastic toiletry and cleaning spray bottles are used a year (that’s made up of about 70% toiletries and 30% cleaning sprays.)1,5,6. This doesn’t even include water bottles!

The vast majority of these 1.43 billion plastic bottles are single use by us, the consumer, so never get used again.

So what happens to these containers once we’re done with them?

(I’m using some rounding here to simplify, but …)

Around 57% of these bottles go into the recycle bin1, so that’s 815 million cleaning and toiletry bottles a year. This option is by far the best when you can’t use something again, recycling a plastic bottle takes 30% – 70% less energy than a new one7 and helps save some of our precious non renewable resources. There is a lot of room for improvement on the amount of recyclable plastic that households are recycling, but arguably the bigger issue is what actually happens to the bottle once in the recycling bin. 61% of our plastic recycling is sent abroad to be recycled2, and what really happens to it overseas is opaque. As well as there being a big risk for it to end up in the ocean during transport8, there are reports of it being illegally incinerated or dumped abroad3. Not great!

Around 24% is incinerated in the UK1, this means that they are burned, releasing CO2 and harmful toxins into the atmosphere and local community. The waste hierarchy, ranks waste disposal methods according to their impact on the environment, incineration is the second worst waste management process (with landfill being the worst). Eunomia Research and Consulting quote that landfill and incineration of plastic bottles produces approximately 233,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions a year1. To add to this, incinerations plants are also disproportionately being built in low-income areas and neighbourhoods with high populations of people of colour.4 

Ranked worst for the environment is landfill where about 19% or 277 million of these bottles a year end up1. The three main problems with landfill are toxins, leachate and greenhouse gases. Toxins come from things like electricals which, over time, leach into our soil and groundwater, and become environmental hazards for years. Leachate is the liquid formed when waste breaks down in the landfill and water filters through that waste. This liquid is highly toxic and can pollute land, ground water and water ways. Greenhouse gases come from organic material such as food scraps and green waste in landfill, it breaks down and releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfill gas comprises 35-55% methane and 30-44% carbon dioxide. The implications for global warming and climate change are huge. Composting your food scraps and green waste in a compost bin can eliminate many of these problems.8

And of these of these that end up in landfill, there is also a big impact on the oceans. As explained above it is thought that landfill is a big contributor to ocean plastic, up to 80% of all ocean’s plastic is thought to come from land overspill.1 

What this means in terms of the carbon footprint

Firstly, why carbon footprint matters... Carbon dioxide is the main contributor to our greenhouse gasses which is the lead cause of global warming, There are other greenhouse gases contributing to global warming too and, where you can, it’s best to include the whole picture. The research we are using today all have carbon emission metrics in common which is why we have focussed in on this. Using a metric that all the research has in common helps us compare and combine reports.

So it's estimated that a single use 500 ml plastic bottle has a total carbon footprint equal to 82.8 grams of carbon dioxide. This considers the raw material mining, the production, transport and waste management assuming the bottle isn’t recycled.7

If the bottle is recycled it can reduce the carbon footprint anywhere from 30% to 70%!

This means if none were recycled, the 1.43 billon plastic cleaning and toiletries bottles would be contributing to 118 billion grams of carbon dioxide annually. This is similar to 87 thousand cars 10,11 or heating 44 thousand homes for a year 12. If all of the 57% of recycled bottles were actually recycled, this reduces it to 59 billion grams of carbon dioxide annually (using 50% as the average).

Compare this to refill

Every time you reuse your bottle, you are saving 82.8 grams of carbon dioxide if it’s not recyclable, and on average 41.4 grams of carbon dioxide if you do recycle it. 

On average a household in the UK uses 30 toiletries and cleaning bottles. If you use the same 6 bottles for a whole year, you’re reducing your impact by 80%!

Even with glass bottles which are more resource intensive than plastic, if you use glass 3 times vs a single use plastic bottle then it starts to be the better option.

 

So this one has a lot more figures and facts than usual, but hopefully it shows you why refill is so important!

References and extra (not so light!) reading 

  1. Plastic Bottle Waste in the UK - parliament publications
  2. Exporting Plastic Waste for Recycling - British Plastics Foundation
  3. What really happens to your plastic recycling? - Greenpeace
  4. UK waste incinerators three times more likely to be in poorer areas - UNEARTHED
  5. Recycling Facts - recyclingbins.co.uk
  6. Poll reveals “typical” Brit’s annual waste - Circular
  7. What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Plastic Bottle? - Sciencing
  8. The Facts - Plastic Oceans
  9. What is a landfill? Why are landfills bad for the environment? - UNISAN
  10. Emissions from cars - Carbon Independent
  11. Distribution of the average annual mileage of all motorists in the United Kingdom (UK) - Statista/
  12. Significant changes are coming to the UK heating market - Energy Saving Trust
  13. A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled - National Geographic
Jacqueline Smith

Jacqueline Smith

Founder of nookary and homeware enthusiast, looking to make sustainable and ethical choices all a bit easier for people.

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