Australians use an average of 130kg of plastic per person each year, according to WWF Australia.
If you're looking for ways to cut down on the amount of plastic you use, one of the simplest things you can do is switch to using refillable products.
The concept is simple: buy the original bottle once, keep it, and once empty top it up using a second, more eco-friendly container (or refillable station, although not everyone will have access to one).
A growing market
Not every product on your shopping list will have a refillable option, but it's a market that's growing in popularity – search online and you'll find lots of independent retailers offering various refillable products or subscriptions.
Supermarkets also have an array of refillable products to choose from and are even trialling eco-friendly refill stations.
But aside from being environmentally friendly, can they save you money? To find out, we look at some of the most widely available refillable cleaning and personal-care products and their original counterparts from Aldi, Coles and Woolworths.
We found a large number of refillable hand wash products in supermarkets.
How much can you save using refillable items?
We assessed 71 refillable products including hand wash, shampoo and conditioner, and various cleaning supplies. All of them were cheaper per 100mL than their original counterparts, with an average saving of 32%.
Some of the savings were even more impressive – the Damprid Moisture Absorber refill, for instance, was 68% cheaper per 100mL than its original.
Conversely, 15 items had savings of less than 20% – not a huge amount, but over time it will certainly add up. For some people, a small discount may just be the icing on the cake for choosing to cut down on the amount of plastic they buy.
All 71 of the refillable products we looked at were cheaper per 100mL than their original counterparts, with an average saving of 32%
But if you're simply after the cheapest product on offer (refillable or not), make sure you compare the unit price – see our tips for shopping by unit price.
Refillable products with the biggest savings
Savings of 50% or more:
- The Balnea Body Company Hand wash refill (various scents) – save 50%
- Coles Antibacterial Handwash (various scents) – save 50%
- Omo Laundry Liquid Dilute at Home refill (original and sensitive) – save 55%
- Tricare Invigorating Handwash (various scents) – save 55%
- Fluffy Concentrate Fabric Softener refill – save 64%
- Cove Glass & Window Cleaner refill – save 65%
- Cove Surface All-Purpose refill – save 65%
- Cove Bathroom & Shower refill – save 65%
- Damprid Moisture Absorber refill – save 68%.
The cost of concentrates
Undiluted concentrates are a great refillable option because they're lighter and use less packaging. You simply add the refill to the original bottle and top it up with water.
But our research found it's much harder to compare unit prices of concentrates when you're in the supermarket.
It's much harder to compare unit prices of concentrates when you're in the supermarket
Of the six refillable products we looked at that were concentrates, all listed the unit price of the concentrated liquid.
But that made each refillable item more expensive by unit price than the original product (and its competitors), which contains the pre-mixed concentrate plus water.
600% unit price hike?
For example, according to the supermarket unit prices the concentrated Jiff Power and Shine Eco refill (bathroom and kitchen products) costs a whopping 600% more per 100ml than the original.
But actually, when we adjusted for the dilution of the concentrate, it's 30% cheaper for 700ml of the final solution compared with 700ml of the original.
Likewise, Cove's concentrated Glass and Window Cleaner, Surface All-Purpose and Bathroom and Shower refills costs 33% more per 100ml than the original. But when we calculated the unit price with the final volume of the concentrate (after adding water) it comes in at 65% cheaper than the original.
What products are available as refillables?
Our impression is that the market for refillable products is growing. Hand wash seems to take up the most space on shelves, but we also saw refills for cleaning products (including bathroom, kitchen and all-purpose surface sprays, laundry detergent, toilet cleaner and more), shampoos and conditioners, and some food items (honey, tomato sauce and barbecue sauce).
Not always easy to spot
Our research found that it isn't always easy to match the refill to the original product.
For hand wash and food products, the smaller original bottles are often at eye level and the larger refill options on the shelves below, rather than side by side. And because there are so many types of hand wash to choose from, it may take you longer to find the refill you're after.
We also found that it's often not clear from the original product when a refill is available.
In all, 42 of the original products in our comparison didn't have any labelling to highlight the fact they were refillable, which makes shoppers more likely to throw the bottle away.
Refillable stations in supermarkets
Both Coles and Woolworths are currently trialling in-store refillable stations to help shoppers save money and reduce plastic waste at home.
The Ecostore refill station at Coles Local Chatswood in Sydney.
In November 2020, Coles Local Chatswood in Sydney launched an Ecostore refill station where shoppers can buy refills of shampoo, conditioner, hand wash, body wash, dishwashing liquid and laundry liquid.
Eliminating the need for single-use bottles is a selling point that seems to have proven popular. Coles has since expanded the initiative to a Coles Local in Fitzroy, Melbourne (which also has an olive oil refillable station), and partnered with Unilever to offer a laundry liquid refill station at Coles Moonee Ponds, also in Melbourne, with discounts of more than 50%.
"We're always looking for innovative opportunities to install sustainable and eco-friendly initiatives in our stores," says a Coles spokesperson. "We'll continue to monitor feedback and look to expanding the offer to more Coles stores in the near future."
Woolworths' refill station at Burwood Brickworks in Melbourne.
Earlier this year, Woolworths launched a refill station at Burwood Brickworks in Melbourne. The refill station offers three different products from Woolies' Macro Whole Living range – laundry liquid, a multipurpose surface cleaner and dishwashing liquid – with savings of 11 to 13%.
"The response from customers has been incredibly positive," says a Woolworths spokesperson. "The trial is only in its early stages and we'll continue to listen to feedback from our customers to understand the opportunities to introduce further refill stations."
Woolworths is also partnering with Loop later this year to launch a new reusable packaging system, which it claims "will allow you to purchase your favourite brands that have been redesigned with durable containers – suitable for reuse."
We couldn't find any information about refill stations at Australian Aldi stores, although they recently trialled the concept in Wales, UK.