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Extending product value:
(Organised) Refilling

Extending product value: (Organised) Refilling

Offering a refilling option for consumable products to the end-consumer can be done in two ways. This can be done through offering a refilling station or a dispensing point as the dispensing unit to the end-consumer. Both require organised refilling for restocking the dispensing unit.

The refilling station tends to be a modular shelf system with containers for restocking, which is suited for a variety of bulk products. Products like cooking essentials (e.g. grains, flours, oils), personal care and home care lend themselves well to this set-up. In this case the refilling station itself is the product, with the refillable shelf space and its restocking being offered as a service to different companies (B2B). Their consumers will then obtain the desired item from your shelf system in the desired quantity.

Another way of offering refilling is through a branded dispensing point from your own company, which aims to sell directly to consumers (B2C). Consumers can the use the dispensing point to refill a specifically designed container or refill a container brought by a consumer themselves. This refilling method is most suited to liquids like beverages, personal care items or detergents.  The access of the dispensing point for refilling can be offered to consumers as a service model or through regular transactions.

Product design choices

Dispensing approach Choosing the right dispensing approach depends on your target customer. If you aim to offer refillable shelf space (for instance with exchangeable containers) it is likely that your main customer is not the end-consumer, but you actually intent to sell packaging free shelf space to either storeowners (for instance a supermarket), bulk good producers while partnering with a storeowner, or both at the same time. Keep in mind to explore their needs of all stakeholders thoroughly before settling on a final design for your dispensing approach and its associated dispensing unit and restocking process. This can be complex process due to conflicting stakeholder needs. For instance, when considering store space availability and container size requirements from the producer might mean you need to limit the amount of shelf spaces that can be placed.


This is less relevant if you market a refillable product directly to end-consumers through a dispensing point, as in that case it is most important to make sure that refilling station fits in the store and can easily be accessed for restocking. In that case you can also reduce transportation and packaging costs by supplying products as concentrates, which can be mixed with water on the spot in the dispensing point.

Restocking The restocking of the dispensing unit can be done at a central location or in the retail outlet. The former is more suitable for a refillable shelf system with containers that can be collected for restocking, while the latter is more suited to instore restocking. However, this is not the only configuration that can work. It is notable that most service based refilling approaches favour recollection for restocking as it allows for better control over the restocking process, data collection and associated hygienic aspects.
Dispensing method The dispenser is controlled either by the user who decides on the amount of product they need or through automatic portion control. It can be implemented by installing a manual handle, or more advanced system where desired quantity is premeasured and automatically dispensed (this can be supported by using compatible restocking containers with an RFID-chip). It is a challenge to ensure that the dispensing system is easy and safe to use, and that it lives up to the expected brand experience. Reducing spillage should be a main consideration, otherwise it will decrease the overall attractiveness to all of the stakeholders.
Hygienic and safety considerations Restocking brings challenges around handling product residues, outside contaminants, and safe material choices for your dispensing unit. If the products sold through your dispensing unit affect humans it is necessary to comply with stringent hygienic and safety standards, policies and regulations. This can impact the materials that can be used for the creating the dispensing unit and will lead to specific requirements around the (mandatory) cleaning processes for the dispenser. It can also be an option to include a single-use sleave in your dispensing unit, for instance when using containers. This increases control over the process, but it does create more (plastic) waste. Also, keep in mind that when using large storage containers this can result in unsold product, that might lead to issues with product expiry.
Durability Focussing on durability increases the longevity of your dispensing unit and/ or the containers used for dispensing. It is better if they last longer and suffers less damage overtime, reducing the costs for replacement, repair or switching out broken components.
Limit component amount By limiting the number of components, the dispensing unit and/ or the containers used for dispensing are easier to maintain and have less chance to break. It is also easier to recycle them after it is no longer possible to either revise or repair the dispensing unit and/ or the containers (i.e. when they reach their end-of-life stage).
Limit material types Limiting the amount of materials helps to create a dispensing unit and/ or containers that can be easier recycled at their end-of-life stage. Using a limited amount of materials will make sure that the future waste streams associated with your dispensing unit and/ or the containers will be more homogeneous and therefore more valuable for recyclers.
Reduce material use Efficient material use can be achieved by considering why materials are needed and how the amount of material used can be reduced. It should be an elemental part of the design requirements. Within boundaries it will help reduce raw material costs and makes the dispensing unit and/ or the containers used for dispensing lighter and consequently requires less energy for transportation.
Reduce energy use Reduce the amount of energy that is used for manufacturing by carefully reviewing your production and restocking process and over time optimise your process. If possible, use renewable energy to reduce the overall environmental impact of your dispensing unit and/ or the containers used for dispensing.
Connection selection It is preferrable to reduce the amount of connections between components, but if this is not possible the aim should be to use the same materials in the connections as the materials that are used in each of the components. Doing so will make future recycling efforts easier. However, given that ownership over the product is retained, the connections can also be made from different materials if this increases overall durability, but in that case additional care should be given to find a suitable end-of-life solution for the materials used in the connection.
Structural design With an increased emphasis on durability the structural design of a product requires serious consideration. A structurally strong dispensing unit and/ or container used for dispensing is more likely to be durable and thus less costly to maintain. Keep in mind that for connection points and movable components it will be challenging to make them more structurally sound. It might be difficult to achieve this without impacting the desired functionality of these components.
Modularity A modular the dispensing unit allows for changing out parts, while maintaining the integrity of the dispenser. This increases the ease of repair, replacement or maintenance. It is a prerequisite for using interchangeable components and for using exchangeable containers.
Fault detection Making sure that faults, damage or wear can spotted easily will help fault isolation and speed up repair. This will reduce the costs for repairing and will reduce the time the dispensing unit or container is out of order, but it will require upfront investment to do so.
Simplification Consider to simplify the individual components as this makes the components more durable, easier to replace and lowers production costs.
Interchangeability Interchangeable component design allows for modular products and aims to make switching out an individual component easier.
Keying Keying uses matching geometric features on a component to ensure easy matching with other components and connectors.
Sacrificial elements In some case it might not be possible to create long lasting components, in these cases it could relevant to consider how these components can be sacrificed, retrieved and replaced.
Function integration Consider designing components that can deliver on the different functional needs of your product. In this design strategy a component can change function depending on where it is used in the overall product. This can be difficult to pull off, but if successful this will reduce costs for component replacement. It will also enable economies of scale through standardised component production.
Renewable materials Consider using renewable materials. However, renewable material should only be chosen when its extraction rate is equal to or lower than its replenishment rate. Further, next to its properties, materials need to be selected based on their expected end-of-life treatment to avoid unintended consequences.
Recycled materials When using recycled materials, it is important to be aware of the variance in quality. This variance can occur between different production batches, but also between materials in the same batch. The variance can exceed the tolerances that are expected from virgin materials. Another aspect is understanding the composition of the recycled material as it can contain residual contamination of unknown origin.
Non-toxic and low impact materials Aim to use non-toxic and low-impact materials. Toxic substances tend to accumulate in the biosphere and cause negative health effects for humans and other species. Design products with materials that are safe for the environment and that require less land, energy and water.
Technical characterization The regular aspects of product design still apply when considering material selection for the dispensing unit and/ or the containers used for dispensing:
– What are the main technical properties of the material (e.g., its strength, fire resistance, etc.)?
– What are the constraints/opportunities of the material?
– What are the most convenient manufacturing processes to form the material?
– What about other manufacturing processes? How does the material behave when subjected to other processes?
Surface treatment Surface treatment will increase overall durability and resistance to damage, but will also impact the ease of recycling at the products end-of-life stage. It might be worthwhile to consider other options to increase durability.
Design for recycling Through recycling, the loop between post-use and production is closed, resulting in a circular flow of resources. Design a product that can be recycled, even if it is meant to be reused. Apart from exploring technical feasibility it is also relevant to check if the preferred end-of-life solutions can handle the expected waste volumes you will generate in the future. Find reliable partners that can help you during your expansion process and when you reach your desired market share. The design choice regarding recyclability should not compromise the product’s ability to ensure the product’s shelf life, safe use, etc. Avoid oxo-degradable and biodegradable plastics since these “contaminate” the other, main polymer types (PE, PP, PET) plastic streams that are earmarked for recycling.

Supply chain impact

Dispenser volume management The dispenser’s volume management is a central issue to a business proposition based on refilling. Keeping sight on the amount of product left in the dispenser is important for managing the restocking needs and the associated restocking operations. Depending on the sophistication of the dispensing unit the volume level will either manually measured of digitally. For the former it requires manual check-ups by either an employee working in the retail outlet or your own staff. The latter makes dynamic monitoring feasible, but requires constant internet access.
Recollection Retrieving empty dispensing units or containers for restocking could be a new addition to your company’s processes. The refilling process this might require central refilling and then a recollection process is essential. In order to organise this system, the recollection method needs to be designed as an integral part of your company. Considerations will be:
– Method of collection (through mail delivery, in-person collection, or drop-off at third-party site)
– Set-up of your own collection system or utilising reverse logistics systems from a retail outlet.
Distribution distance The distance between your customer and your distribution centre impacts the environmental performance, with longer distances resulting in higher emissions. Finding the right balance between the need for delivery and recollection for restocking, and reducing the travel distance is tricky. This should be taken serious as the associated logistical costs will need to be properly accounted for. Similarly, if third-party cleaning is required before restocking this should be factored in too.
Storage The storage need associated with stocking and restocking your dispensing point will differ depending on how you set it up. If you have set-up a system that depends on IT tracking and dynamic volume level management you will likely need less storage space. This might be different if you manually check volume levels as in that case having some extra stock on hand will reduce the need for coming back later to restock. Furthermore, keep in mind that opting for a central refilling method will likely lead to having additional storage needs during the cleaning and restocking stages.
Cleaning The thorough cleaning of the dispensing unit and/ or the containers used for dispensing is crucial to assure that hygienic standards are maintained and that no breach of health and safety regulations will occur. You can organize cleaning in house or through a third-party cleaner or on-site at the retail outlet. However, pay attention to the climate impact of the cleaning process, in regards to water use, detergent use, energy use and travel distances involved. In some cases, it might also be that using a single-use insertion for restocking has a lower environmental impact than cleaning the dispensing unit or container centrally, but do keep in mind that the insertion has to be collected and properly processed for the material recovery through recycling.
Repair and replacement Repair and replacement of dispensing unit and containers is essential to maintain a running refilling operation. Getting warnings notices when the dispenser units breaks down will be required. This can be achieved through wireless status checks, during regular on-site check-ups, or through receiving a notice by phone or email from the retail outlet. When a repair or maintenance issues appear, you can either try to solve them in-house after collecting faulty equipment or repair it on site. You can also decide to contract the maintenance duties with a third-party supplier.
Refilling batch identification As the containers, single-use sleaves or your dispensing point restock on a regular basis it is necessary to be able to identify which batch of products ends-up in each dispensing unit. It is important to identify each individual batch to keep control over product expiry dates and support product recall procedures (if required). You can use a manual registration system or an IT registration system. The latter can be made more efficient in case you intend to use sleaves or containers that contain microchips.
Container identification Including identification microchips in the containers or single use sleaves will help monitor the restock circulation and attrition rates. If you restock and clean centrally or at a third-party supplier you can also track their whereabouts. Furthermore, the chip can be connected to portion control at the dispensing unit to monitor in real-time if the container needs restocking and it can be used for batch identification. If you include a chip it should be integrally connected with your registration system, as otherwise it adds costs and environmental impacts without delivering the full extent of the value that can be realised. Do make sure that the chips can easily be detached for recycling purposes.
Registration system Your IT registration system is central to managing the product batch circulation and inventory demands and restocking. This will drive your operational understanding of where your products are, what is needed to meet customer demand and to plan cleaning, restock, repair and replacement needs. It can be connected directly to your invoicing system, but its main purpose must be to keep track of the dispensing unit and containers during their entire life cycle.
Attrition rate When using containers, it can occur that not all of them will be returned to your business and others that do will be damaged beyond repair. Therefore, your business will suffer attrition and its associated cost over time. Managing attrition rate is necessary, as it will help you reduce your costs by planning accurately for replacement. This also extends to the replacement of dispensing units. A higher attrition rate also generally leads to a worse environment performance.

User experience

Understanding refilling motivation Refilling using a dispensing unit requires customers to bring their own packing container (in most cases). This can be a great way to differentiate from traditional packaging, but might also be perceived as additional hassle. Try to understand in which cases people are inclined to make the effort, and why do so. This will help support marketing and communication around refilling by using your product.
Refilling as an option It can occur that the necessary packaging container is not brought into the retail outlet by the customer. In that case it would be useful to offer an alternative package, but keep in mind that this might undercut your original aim around refilling. This can be circumvented by providing these packages either with a deposit (and thus let the customer return it later) or by providing packaging for a fee (to create an incentive to bring your own instead). However, this will impact the overall environmental performance negatively.

Business model

Understand sales environment of customer The retail outlet customer acts within a set of constraints resulting from how they service their own customers. Understanding clearly why they make certain choices helps creating a refilling offer that is responsive to their needs. If this is done correctly your refilling solution and the associated dispensing unit will offer additional value to your customer.
Impact on the business of your customer Be aware that implementing your refilling solution might have impact on staff routines and other operational aspects of your customers business. Try to find ways to accommodate this as best as possible but to do so you need to know your customer intimately and it requires trust building to get there. The spatial impact of your dispensing unit is an important consideration, as well as the space availability for storage in case you depend on using return logistics or other forms of collection for central restocking. In inner-city environments this might be challenging in to the size of most retail outlets.
Aim for limiting cost disparities Aim to prevent large cost disparities between your refilling proposition and the existing transactional model. Your customer will need to be involved with your product in their retail outlet. So even if you think your fee does not look to high too you, it is always worthwhile to consider how to limit the disparity in costs. Even perceived higher costs can act as a barrier for new customers that are not intrinsically motivated to procure sustainable and refillable products.


Plastics recycling (if plastics are included) When using plastics in your product there a number of things you can do to increase the ease of recycling:
– Mono polymer design
– Prevent layering different polymers
– Avoid dark pigments and fillers
– Mark large plastic parts to facilitate sorting
– Avoid thermoset materials
– Avoid using coatings on plastic
– Avoid using composite materials
Recycling processes There a different types of material recycling that can be considered for your end-of-life. Consider the following processes for fit with the chosen material and environmental impact:
– Remould
– Mechanical
– Thermal
– Chemical
Upcycling Upcycling means recycling in which resources retain their high quality in a closed loop industrial cycle. When thinking of your end-of-life solution it is important to consider the possibility of upcycling. The idea is that your waste stream ends up creating a new product with new value added to it, that ideally goes beyond low value applications for recycled material.
rPET can for example be used for new bottles, food trays and food tubs.
rPE and rPP can for example become pipes, buckets or containers for non-food products.

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MIWA Refillable shelf system that acts as a business ecosystem for packaging-free sales. RFID-enabled monitoring of
inventory, automatic reordering of stock, and real-time data on flow of goods, improves the supply chain efficiency and operational convenience.
Pepsi spire


Refill station for refilling soda bottles in store.


Cosmetics refilling with dispensing point and a smart phone application.

Design methods

If you want to know more about design methodologies that can help make your design responsive to your customer’s needs, read our page about design thinking & user-centered design.



Developing a reusable product can lead to lower environmental impacts. Many of the aspects listed below will provide you with insights on what to consider to reduce your future impact. A Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) can help you understand the environmental performance of your new product, which can support you in developing appropriate communication messaging. Here you can learn more about LCA.

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