Plastic Free July – Interview with Unpackaged’s Catherine Conway

With refill stations set to be trialled in 4 major supermarkets later this year, we got the chance to speak to Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged who are the driving force behind The Refill Coalition. We discussed the upcoming project, as well as how low-waste shopping is more do-able than you may think.

Us: How did you get to this point with the Coalition and what obstacles did you face along the way?

Catherine: We started off as the first modern zero waste shop in 2006, and went from market stall, to a shop, to consultancy working with other stores.

I never really saw us branching out of the independent sector, but I realised that if I wanted to achieve my goals on the scale that I wanted, I was going to need to work with big retailers such as supermarkets.

So that’s what we did. One problem we faced is that the hopper dispensers that get used in refill stores have to be cleaned manually, which would incur big costs in terms of staffing for supermarkets. So we worked with CHEP to tackle this, as they’re experts on reusable assets in supply chains.

The coalition have developed a new beer keg style container which will be standardised and unbranded and can easily be passed along the supply chain – these can be sent back and refilled after being washed industrially, which means less needs to be spent on manpower and it keeps costs down.

There’s a myth that refill stores are more expensive than supermarkets, but product pricing needs to be compared like for like. Some zero waste stores DO compete with supermarkets on price, it is usually because these stores like to take a holistic approach to responsibility and stock organics that they have this reputation for being expensive, but that’s because organic products need to be sold at a higher price point and usually this is exactly what their customers want. There are stores whose products are predominantly non-organic and this means their prices are more in line with supermarkets.

People also often question why it can be more cost effective to buy things in single use packaging than without, but it’s amazing how cheap single use plastic packaging is. The properties you get with plastic for the price is amazing, it just shouldn’t be used for disposable options. It needs to be repurposed and reused in the right ways.


Us: How many stores with refill stations are there going to be and where are they based?

Catherine: We have received funding from Innovate UK for up to 48 stores, which will come online from January 2023. There is a lot of testing to be done before then but the plan is to test across multiple demographics, store formats and locations.


Us: What are the desired aims of the trial?

Catherine: The aim is to prove that the system works and there is take-up. To do a life cycle assessment and make sure it’s environmentally beneficial.


Us: Why haven’t supermarkets reduced their plastic use already?

Catherine: Retailers are doing a lot in fairness, and much of it the customer would never see – changing the materials of packaging, making it lighter etc. Sometimes the lack of regulation can be a hindrance because it would make it a level playing field. The supply chain is optimised for single use plastic, and this is perpetuated by the demands of customers. There is an expectation for example that we should be able to buy strawberries in the winter, and that cucumbers should be really long (despite people often throwing half away). In reality, shorter, stubbier cucumbers are hardier and require less plastic packaging.


Us: What are most refill stores doing right/wrong at the moment?

Catherine: I would say refills stores are doing a great job at surviving, which is no mean feat in the current climate, it shows that there is a demand for this type of product and they deserve as much support as they can get.


Us: What other big plans do Unpackaged have for the future?

Catherine: Our plans are to continue our consultancy work, carry out more research (into policy interventions for example) and to keep pushing forwards with both the thinking and the doing. I love nothing more than getting on a shop floor myself and working directly with the client.


The Refill Coalition is M&S, Morrisons, Ocado, Waitrose & Partners and the supply chain solutions company CHEP

If successful, the solution could play a key role in reducing the 56.5 billion units of single-use plastic packaging sold annually in the UK

The Refill Coalition’s solution will reimagine how key food staples (e.g. pasta and grains) and household products (e.g. home and personal care products) are supplied and marks the first step in developing a worldwide standard for plastic-free food distribution from the supplier to the cupboard. Part of the system, being developed through the coalition, is a bulk home delivery refill solution – an industry first.

Check out the refill coalition website for more info!