Unpackaged Eco explores shop, refill, return model

With climate change front and centre in the minds of consumers in Australia and around the globe, FMCG businesses and retailers are removing plastic, cutting back on packaging and reducing food waste, to say the least.

Article featured on InsideFMCG by Ruth Hogan

But pressure is building to reduce waste further across the supply chain and in stores. Zero waste retailers are no longer a myth and are starting to gain momentum in the current climate.

In August, Australia’s largest bulk foods and zero waste retailer The Source Bulk Foods unveiled its first outlet in Singapore. And earlier this week, Coles announced that it was trialling its first zero waste to landfill store as part of its sustainability initiatives.

Irene Chen, founder and CEO of Unpackaged Eco, is working with Australian suppliers and retailers to help make zero waste achievable.

Unpackaged Eco is a Melbourne-based shop, refill and return model, similar to the Loop model developed by Terracycle and used by Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Mondelēz, to name a few.

The start-up was founded just under 12 months ago, borne from Chen’s own frustrations about waste as a consumer.

“I saw the plastic waste issue and felt a little bit helpless about what I could do from a practical perspective, and I realized that perhaps there’s another solution to this,” Chen told Inside FMCG.

With a background in retail, she started to examine it from that perspective.

“Unpackaged Eco is a way for consumers to purchase their everyday products in reusable and durable packaging. We give them the option to come back and refill in-store. When they’re done with their container, they return it back to us, we clean and return it back to be reused,” Chen explained.

Unpackaged Eco has launched a private label range across four shops in Melbourne with manual dispensers in-store to test the refill model for products such as dish washer liquid, handwash, laundry liquid and multi cleaner. The team are also looking to venture into shampoo and conditioner as well as dry food and eventually dairy and other groceries.

“I think one of the learnings that we’ve had from early trials and feedback from customers is that, they want to shop zero waste across the board, not just two or three items. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of trouble to go to five different shops. Our aim is to offer a good basket of products to customers, and obviously, with brands involved it will really elevate the offering.”

The business is also developing technology that uses a combination of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and quick response (QR) to track every single container.

“We want to harness that whole refill, shop, return model, and collect data to enable us to make better decisions around packaging; to understand consumption patterns a bit better, to help brands and retailers really get some customer insights on how they shop. So that’s very exciting. We’re just under six months away from a trial launch.”

Customers will be able to tap to borrow containers, and tap to return. The container deposit management system is automated to make borrowing and returning seamless.

“The technology will help us get a little bit closer to the customer. We’re so used to disposing so to actually encourage a shift in behavior, I think we need to do a bit more than just put a refill station there. I think we need to actually engage with the customer,” Chen said.

Commenting on industry efforts on sustainability, Chen believes the intentions and goals are right.

“I’m talking to most of the brands, they all have the similar 2025 packaging targets, which is great. I think what’s missing for us as a means to get there.”

She expects brands may be reluctant to commit to costs of such a project but said it needs to be viewed as a long-term solution.

“Packaging now, instead of being a single use disposable thing, is an investment. So you lay out more upfront, but the more times you reuse it, and refill, the more you save,” she said.

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