Refillable Containers Cut Plastic Waste, So Why Don’t People Use Them? (#CleanTechnica Interview)

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Behavior change is a tough racket, but the Japan-based company Kao seems to have figured out how to get consumers to stock up on scores of its products with refillable containers instead of buying new containers each time. The result is a huge drop in the amount of packaging materials, a consequent reduction in carbon emissions, and less risk of plastic containers ending up in the wrong place — like an ocean, for example.

So, what about the US? How come we don’t do refillables here?

Sciencing The Refillable Plastic Container

Actually, hundreds of millions of US residents practice the refillable habit on a weekly basis. They’re called drivers.

Currently their refillable container of choice is a gas tank. The rechargeable battery is an emerging variant, and hydrogen tanks for fuel cells are also beginning to inch into the personal mobility market.

The point is that millions of US drivers routinely spend time and attention on refills, sometimes on daily basis, and they have become habituated to the inconvenience of detouring to a location devoted to that activity (except in the partial case of EV charging, but still).

So, why not consumer products?

Kao — that’s the company behind Jergens and Biore, among others by the way — sees a lot of potential for engaging US consumers with refillable packaging.

As of last year the company had 289 refillable products on its roster, accounting for about 80% of its total product line, so it already has a running start on the technology. The real challenge is getting people on board.

In-house R&D is the key to the company’s success with refillables. Kao was founded in 1887 (under a different name) and ramped up its research programs in 1934, when it established its own Housework Science Laboratory. In 1991 the company began introducing refillable and replaceable packaging, and it accelerated that transition in 1997.

In 2016 Kao re-engineered its refillable line with the goal of reducing more waste, and it recently introduced a “Smart Holder” line. The holders eliminate conventional plastic bottles in favor of an open-sided frame.

According to Kao, households in Japan use an average of 40 of its products, so any incremental reduction in its packaging has an outsized impact. The company estimates that its refillable (and replaceable) packaging saved 907,000 tons of plastic compared to conventional packaging last year.

Not for nothing but the company is also beginning to engineer petro-plastic out of its product line. Currently the average of plant-based material in its refills is about 15%.

Culture Change And Plastic Waste

The President and CEO of Kao, Mr. Michitaka Sawada, graciously spent some time on the phone with CleanTechnica to talk about his company’s approach to product development and the potential for sustainable engineering to produce beneficial social impacts (following comments edited for clarity and flow; also please note that Mr. Sawada spoke through an interpreter):

Reducing Plastic: We’ve been able to come up with a refillable package, and we’ve been able to cut the use of plastic by 75%.

In Japan only 20% of our sales have to do with the plastic bottle; 80% come from refills.

We produce just about everything that comes under the category of cleaning; laundry detergent, dishwashing soap, and bathroom products, including powder detergents and personal hygiene products, too. We started [transitioning to refillables] with laundry detergents.

In 2015 we came up with the world’s first and easiest to fill container, and in Japan we just announced that we want to come up with a new approach for the refillable packages themselves.

Environmental, Social, and Governance Reporting (ESG): Our basic approach comes from the larger scope of things. ESG enables us to let the public know what we’re aiming for and where we’re at achieving our own targets. We are able to include our corporate values in longer term horizons.

Sustainable Engineering: It’s one thing to mention about what a company philosophy is, and another thing to materialize it in the product. Rather than just thinking about the packaging we have, we have to take it a step forward.

For instance, when you wash your hair and take a shower, you rinse after shampoo and conditioner; you’re using extra water, that will use energy. And if you take a longer time to rinse, that will waste water.

As a manufacturer, this is our focus… to develop a product that will not require you to rinse your hair [twice].

So for us it’s not just the plastic packaging that we have to be responsible for. We also have to take a step ahead and think about how consumer s are using our products, and if they are wasting energy and resources.

Kao is able to tackle the heart of issues we would like to resolve, which has to do with how foams and bubbles are made with our products, [due to] more than a century of research.

For instance, by researching foams and bubbles we’ve come up with a completely different technology for foams. A better quality of foam will have better cleansing ability, and because a finer foam will be more efficient, it will use less water when rinsing. We estimate that water use is reduced by 20% at the very least.

Social Impacts Of Household Products: We [are placing] an effort on R&D to produce products that are more kind to environment, and on top of this we want to contribute to society.

In thinking about the heart of the social problems we are facing today, it is that people are being left all alone. They have difficulty defining their own presence in society.

We want people to have ties with others and have a position in society. Once these individuals are not isolated, they will be able to reconnect with people.

One of the ways people feel isolated is that they feel they are not contributing to the family. But if you are old and living with children, maybe you can contribute, for example by doing the dishes.

The older you get, it becomes more difficult, so for example we came up with a foaming spray. There is no more scrubbing involved and [older] people can still feel they are part of the family.

We really want the world to know that we’re a company thinking about ESG. It’s important to think about environmental protection, and ESG adds thinking about society itself.

Plastic And The Bottom Line

You’re going to hear a lot more about plastic in the coming months, because a long-awaited ocean plastic cleanup contraption has finally set sail for a gigantic floating trash vortex dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

CleanTechnica has been following the development of the innovative ocean cleanup vessel when it was just pie in the sky back in 2013, so stay tuned for updates on its maiden voyage.

Meanwhile, it would help matters if the amount of trash going into the oceans was reduced if not practically eliminated.

With that in mind, in September the G7 nations (well, minus the US but who’s counting) completed work on an oceans and seas initiative addressing ocean plastic as well as other forms of marine litter and ghost fishing gear.

Greenpeace has criticized the measure as relying too heavily on voluntary action and post-consumer recycling, but the corporate social responsibility movement appears to be gaining momentum as a competitive force. It’s a pretty good bet that brands like Kao will be leveraging their ESG reporting to gain a bottom line edge, especially on hot-button issues like ocean plastic.

So, although the G7 outcome was voluntary, the financial incentive for companies to clean up their act is beginning to take shape.

How serious is the competition? Taking a look at Kao’s press releases over the past few months, it seems that the sustainability bar is going up a few notches (btw that’s not a limbo bar, it’s more like a steeplechase bar):

Kao Included in the S&P/JPX Carbon Efficient Index, a Stock Index for ESG Investing, Newly Selected by the GPIF

Kao included in stock indices for ESG investing: FTSE4Good Index Series, FTSE Blossom Japan Index, MSCI Japan ESG Select Leaders Index and MSCI Japan Empowering Women Index (WIN)

Kao Named to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for Fifth Consecutive Year

And so on. It will be interesting to see how Kao tackles the challenges of bringing US consumers into the refillable fold, so check back in a few months to see how things are going.

Follow me on Twitter.

Photo (cropped, enhanced): by “Clean WalMart” via, creative commons license.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Videos

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3327 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey