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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Doesn't It Produce More Carbon Emissions? Busting Common Myths About Refillable Packaging

While billions of beverages are sold in refillable bottles around the world, there's still a lot of confusion about how these systems work and if they really reduce environmental impact compared to selling drinks in single-use bottles.
By Mary Mazzoni
hand pouring coca-cola from a glass bottle at a restaurant table - coca-cola sells billions of beverages in refillable packaging made from plastic and glass globally

Coca-Cola sells beverages in refillable glass and plastic bottles in major markets around the world. (Image: Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash)

This story is part of a new solutions journalism series focused on refillable packaging, how it's used around the world, and what's holding it back from scaling further. Follow along with the series here

In a November edition of TriplePundit's Brands Taking Stands newsletter, we asked a simple question with a complex answer: If refillable packaging systems — specifically return and refill schemes for beverages — can work so well in countries across Latin America, Asia and Europe, why don't brands use them in the U.S.?

About 14 percent of Coca-Cola and 10 percent of PepsiCo beverages were sold in refillable bottles globally in 2022. Major beer companies like Heineken and AB InBev sell upwards of 30 percent of all products in refillable containers globally, said Matt Littlejohn, who leads the refillables program as part of his role as SVP of strategic initiatives at the ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana.

While billions of beverages are sold in refillable bottles around the world, there's still a lot of confusion about how these systems work and if they really reduce environmental impact compared to selling drinks in single-use bottles.

Even leaders at beverage companies aren't always sure. "The companies, until recently, have not really viewed refill as a plastic-reducing approach," Littlejohn said. "But now they have begun to do that." To counter to the confusion once and for all, we're busting three common myths associated with refillable packaging and getting down to what the data really says. 

Myth: Refillable packaging asks too much from consumers, and people aren't willing to do all that

From Mexico, Chile and Argentina to Germany, Spain and the Philippines, millions of people around the world see bottle return and refill as commonplace.

These systems are designed to be simple for the consumer. Where available, brands owned by companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have separate containers that are marked as returnable, which are made from a more durable plastic than what's used for single-use. When people head to their local corner store, they see drinks in these refillable containers alongside those in single-use bottles. When they're done with the drink, they simply bring their empties back, leave them in a designated place in the store, and select a new beverage from the shelf for up to 25 percent less than what they'd pay if they didn't return the packaging. Glass bottles used for beer and other beverages can be reused through the same system, with no need for a different type of container. 

When the Coca-Cola or Modelo truck arrives at the store with a new delivery, the driver takes the empties back to the bottling plant to be washed, refilled and used again. 

Still, bottlers recognize these systems are by no means as convenient. "When you buy a one-way package you don't need to think and prepare before buying it. You just go to the supermarket and purchase it," said Miguel Angel Peirano Serrano, CEO of Embotelladora Andina, a major Coca-Cola bottler in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, at a 2022 panel discussion hosted by Oceana and HSBC. "But when you buy refillables, you have to actually prepare for that purchase. You have to collect, count, carry and return your empty bottles to a store. So, it is more complicated." 

Andina is among the bottlers turning to technology to make things easier for consumers and drive up the use of refillable packaging. Through a "virtual wallet" system, for example, consumers can track how many refillable bottles they have at home. When they purchase a new refillable bottle at the store, they'll still get the discount for the virtual bottles in their wallet, even if they don't have a physical bottle with them. When they ultimately return the bottles, the balance in the virtual wallet updates. The bottler is also exploring direct-to-consumer models that deliver and pick up bottles directly at consumers' homes. 

Myth: Refillable packaging is no better than using recycled plastic in beverage bottles

Some of the world's top beverage companies are looking to reduce their plastic footprints by buying and using more recycled plastic. Big names like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, and Keurig Dr. Pepper are looking to incorporate 25 percent to 50 percent recycled content across their bottles by 2025. All of them have already introduced some bottles made from 100 percent recycled plastic.

Unfortunately, plastic use at many of these companies is still moving in the wrong direction. Coca-Cola's use of plastic packaging increased by more than 6 percent from 2021 to 2022, and PepsiCo's increased by 4 percent, according to 2023 reports from Oceana and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Even if companies achieve their goals to increase recycled content, billions of single-use bottles will still be produced and sold around the world every year, where they can escape the waste stream and end up as litter in the environment. 

In particular, brand pledges to use more recycled content will only reduce the amount of plastic bottles entering the ocean by an estimated 7 percent, according to 2022 research commissioned by Oceana. More than 33 billion bottles would still enter the ocean each year.

Refillables, on the other hand, displace single-use containers in a truly circular system. Durable plastic bottles can be reused around 25 times, and glass bottles can be refilled 50 times or more, according to Oceana. At the end of its life, the bottle is likely to be in the hands of the beverage company — rather than in the waste stream where it can be contaminated by other materials  — meaning the plastic or glass can be more easily recycled into another food-grade container. For these reasons and more, every 10 percent increase in refillable bottle use across coastal countries could yield a 22 percent reduction in plastic bottle pollution in the ocean, the nonprofit estimates

"In our view, this is the way to really quickly address the plastic crisis," said Littlejohn of Oceana. "The reality of compound annual growth is these companies want to grow to make more money and to have their investors make more money. And if that happens, they have to sell more, and they're going to make more packaging. They're going to have to use more and more plastic, which is a real problem. And this is a way to reduce that curve dramatically."

Refillable packaging - worker prepares to move empty refillable glass coca-cola bottles in the philippines
A worker prepares to move empty refillable glass bottles at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the Philippines. (Image: Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr)

Myth: Refillable packaging can actually come with a higher environmental footprint when you factor in the transportation and cleaning of bottles 

A common misconception about refillable packaging is that it can actually create more environmental impact. The containers are heavier and require more material than single-use alternatives, and those containers have to be transported back to a bottler and washed before they can be reused. All of this adds up to more waste, more water use and more carbon emissions, some skeptics argue. 

But when it comes to beverages in particular, research and beverage brands' own lifecycle assessments prove that's not the case. "There's a lot of misunderstanding and red herrings in this debate because people have this idea that the bottles are so heavy," Littlejohn said. "Coca-Cola, Heineken and AB InBev all say it’s better for the climate. They are not necessarily incentivized to say that, but they're saying that." 

Embotelladora Andina, for example, estimates that returnable plastic bottles have a 21 percent lower carbon footprint over their lifetimes than single-use bottles made from recycled plastic and almost 50 percent lower than single-use bottles made from virgin plastic. "There are a lot of studies showing that the carbon footprint of refillables are substantially lower than that of one-way bottles," Andres Wainer, chief financial officer of Embotelladora Andina, said at the Oceana and HSBC event. 

This is even the case in a large country like Chile, where bottles are often transported long distances. "We ship refillable bottles for hundreds of kilometers, and it's not an issue," Wainer said. "In fact, the cost of taking these empty bottles back to the plant is very low, because the truck has to return empty to the plant anyway. The only difference is that we're putting empty bottles that don't weigh much, so the carbon footprint of that is very, very low. It is nothing relevant because the truck had to return anyway back to the plant." 

For Andina, water use is about 0.1 or 0.2 liters more for refillable bottles compared to disposable, but Wainer also considers this distinction negligible and said the bottler is exploring new ways to recycle water and optimize bottle cleaning. Bottlers also say almost all refillable containers are ultimately returned for reuse

The bottom line 

Refillable packaging offers a promising avenue for brands to reduce their contributions to the global plastic waste crisis. As billions of single-use plastic bottles enter the environment and pour into the ocean every year, it's clear the linear take-make-waste system of packaging must be disrupted if we hope to stem the tide.

Bottlers like Andina are looking to sell upwards of 40 percent of all beverages in refillable packaging by 2030, but there's much more big brands can do to get their bottlers in markets around the world involved, Littlejohn said. 

"They should be telling people about this," Littlejohn said of brands like Coke and Pepsi. "They’re doing this at such a huge level, and no one really knows it." 

Keep an eye out for more TriplePundit coverage on the rise of refillables, and if you've seen a refillable system in your community you'd like to see us cover, drop us a line here

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni