Australians dispose of around 1.9 million tonnes of packaging each year
ReCo’s refill delivery system for dishwashing and laundry powder has a refill rate of 75%; an empty jar collection success rate of 99.5%; and jar breakage rate of just 0.15%.
In less than two years ReCo has prevented more than 2,000 new plastic containers from being created.
Have you ever stood in front of the washing machine with an empty pack of powder in hand wondering how many of those packages you have used over the years? Packaging makes up a big part of all consumer waste in Australia, with about 1.9 million tonnes of packaging being sent to landfill each year. Designing out packaging waste wherever possible will be an important part of delivering a circular economy in Australia, but recycling isn’t the only, or even the best, solution to cutting down on this waste. Reuse services are a significant step up in terms of their environmental impact, but they have often relied on consumers to take the time and effort to reuse packaging containers.
ReCo is turning that concept on its head by offering a zero-waste refill delivery system where consumers have better environmental outcomes delivered right to their doorstep. The project was established in 2020 with the aim of creating a user-centric reuse system that made positive behavioural changes easily adoptable and kept materials at its highest value for as long as possible. ReCo works with Australian eco-friendly cleaning products and provide their products in refillable glass jars to pick up points at local businesses, allowing them to minimise the carbon footprint from transport.
We spoke to ReCo co-founder Danling Xiao about humble beginnings, how they have created a circular solution for a problem product and hopes for the future.
“ReCo is a hyperlocal, zero-waste refill delivery system to help Australians transition to a circular economy. We work with Australian eco-friendly brands and provide their products in our refillable glass jars. We then deliver the products to our local customers and collect the empty jars when they order a refill. The ReCo system is user-centric and designed based on user feedback, making positive behavioural changes easily adoptable.
We are an eCommerce business, but we work with local businesses to set up pickup points, and a hyperlocal delivery service provider to deliver once a week in each local area, allowing us to minimise our carbon footprint and delivery packaging. We are proud to say we use no stickers (not even the biodegradable ones!) in our delivery packaging; only a small paper bag is used and most of the time returned by our customers.
Our organisation exists to inspire and facilitate positive behavioural change to:
Keep materials in use at its highest values as long as possible.
Reduce new materials required for production of everyday consumer products.
Reduce carbon footprint created from extracting materials; making and transporting new products; and unnecessary recycling.
Co-create a local circular economy in Australia.”
“Circularity addresses the biggest challenges and crises humankind is facing - climate change, waste pollution, equality, food security. Circular economy puts people, community and the natural environment first. It challenges the status quo of the fossil-fuel-based economic system and transforms the way we think, live and work into a much more sustainable way.
ReCo adheres to the circular economy principle: keep materials in use at its highest values, for as long as possible. To package our products, we use glass jars that are made from recycled glass. When we deliver the refills, we collect the empty jars at the same time. Because they are glass, open-mouthed, with water-proof labels, they can be easily sanitised and washed instantly in a commercial washer. They get air dried and back in use again.
Though we’re an eCommerce business, we believe in local circularity: use local resources as much as we can, work with local brands and businesses, serve local customers. We don’t ship our products to other cities, not to mention globally! This allows us to provide the best quality of products and services, support other local businesses, connect with our customers, and fundamentally, minimise delivery packaging and carbon footprint.”
Australians throw away around 1.9 million tonnes of packaging each year. The number is staggering, but the fact is, many businesses who we’ve spoken to, have been trying everything that can to reduce their impact. The problem we’ve identified is much bigger – the existing supply chain is not designed for circularity. Because of that, although the refill concept sounds like a no-brainer, there are fundamental business problems to solve: scalability, profitability and the length of time that’s required for behavioural change.
“We use a local delivery and collection system to bring our customers refills for a range of products produced by established Aussie eco brands. These products are packaged in the ReCo returnable jars. We deliver the products to the customers. When they are ready to refill, we notify them one day before delivery, deliver the refill and collect the empty jar at the same time. The jars then come back to our system and get cleaned, refilled and delivered to the next customer."
“The initial steps we took was an in-depth interview with 50 people living in Sydney, followed by a three-month trial with 20 households in the inner-city suburbs. The trial includes testing different cleaning products from different local brands - both liquid and powder; the containers and refill methods; the delivery and collection system; communication approach and price points.
We learnt so much in the three months and decided on the initial products, materials for the refillable containers, delivery and collection method, pricing model, information for our communication channels (website, emails and SMS messages).
In the meanwhile, we quickly drafted a website with the most basic information in a bare-bone structure. We had to wait till the COVID lockdown was lifted to launch in June 2020. The first batch of orders were simply delivering the products to the customers – which was very exciting for a new business! Till their next refill, it gave us more time to continue to gain customer feedback and build our service.
From day one we decided to focus on building the best refill delivery system and creating the best user experience for our customers. We had advisors questioning us about whether we will make our own products, as it will increase our profit margin and give us a lot more opportunities to wholesale the products. But that will dilute our focus on creating the best service that stays true to the circular economy principles.
As a self-funded startup, we identify the most viable products at this early stage: refillable powders. We collaborate with our favourite eco brand SimplyClean, as we trust their products will be loved by our customers, giving us more time and energy to focus on creating the experience. We manufacture our jars based on an existing tool, which makes it a lot viable financially to get the products and service started within a very short period.
This allows us to put our focus on creating a seamless experience both online and offline for our customers at an early stage. So far, our refill rate is about 75%; our empty jar collection success rate is 99.5%; and jar breakage rate is about 0.15%.
Putting circularity aside, like any self-funded new business, it’s already challenging to break into the market - it requires time and money. In a way, time is a contradiction to circular business. To be investible we’ll need to show exponential growth within a short period of time. With circularity, we’re talking about challenging status quo, innovating and cultivating long-term behavioural changes. All takes time.
The other barrier we identify is also that there isn’t a lot of awareness in refilling and reusing. Compared to recycling, reusing and refilling doesn’t have much financial support from the government. We think the biggest opportunity for us is we’re in it early and we’re learning and building a genuine circular model with many great people in Sydney, including our customers. The more we learn, the more we work with the community, the more we’ll build a successful circular model that has longevity and a long-term impact.
Collaborate with people and community - listen, learn and always strive to provide more value to your community. Be patient and be willing to give 100% to achieve the circular goal. Becoming circular requires us to think outside the current linear economic system, which is exciting. But at the end of the day, we’re still doing business within the linear economic system - so practically, there are still many barriers and expectations that work against the circular principles. We see the only solution to overcome these barriers is through collaboration. Building a circular economy needs all of us to work together. It’s a long journey.”
“Our ultimate goal is to achieve full local circularity, at scale, this means:
Partner with responsible manufacturers to produce our jars locally, with a maximum amount of recycled material.
Partner with responsible logistics companies to service the local community.
Ensure every component of our operation and product offerings, including delivery packaging, is 100% zero waste and reusable.
Ensure at the end of life, the products - for example, broken jars (even though our breakage is very minimum), are fully recycled with 100% transparency provided.
Run the model at scale, in different cities and regions.
Our jars are constantly circulating, meaning we could potentially work to a point when we no longer need to produce new jars. But if we’re able to manufacture our returnable jars locally, it will significantly reduce our carbon emissions in transportation and provide full production transparency. At this stage, it’s impossible to achieve due to the large quantity the local manufacturers require.
Working with hyperlocal warehouse and delivery hubs is our solution to minimise our carbon emissions in the last-mile delivery. But we can only achieve zero emissions when we transition to electric cars, powered by renewable energy. We’re proud to say we have a delivery helper who drives an electric car, powered by solar power!
It’s a model that puts people and the environment first, and we can already see it from the impact we’ve made in our local community - we’ve so far saved more than 2,000 plastic containers from being made into the world (from only 2 products!); every successful swap of jars, is an action filled with thoughtfulness and willingness to make a difference. To us, ReCo is about humanity, not business.
Launching ReCo during the pandemic is already a huge achievement. Funding the business to this far by ourselves, getting our local customers onboard, getting our message across to the customers and the media, being featured on the front covers of some of the most-distributed local magazines, having some of Sydney’s most forward-thinking leaders using our service, being accepted into Australia’s first circular economy accelerator program - all these are great achievements to us.
From the very early beginning, we were determined to create the best user experience to inspire behaviour change. Everything we do is guided by this ambition. And we continue to learn, improve and pivot. We hope to continue to raise awareness, collaborate with our community and provide viable and valuable solutions to help Australia transition to a circular economy.
If we didn’t have the pandemic, we'd definitely do things differently, and there will probably be much faster growth, not only in our market share, but also in achieving 100% circularity. But that’s the world we live in right now - the silver lining is that we get to use these times to learn about being grounded, patient and agile, which we believe is the virtue that we need in building a circular economy.”
“ReCo stands for re-imagine and co-create. Circular economy is the future, but it needs all of us to challenge the status quo and build it together. Collaboration is more important than ever in times like these.
If you’re in our service areas, let’s work together! Place your first order at reco.net.au."