Introduction to Refilling

Before 1960, locally-operated and locally-owned refilling systems were the standard way of delivering soft drinks (and beer) in the U.S. and elsewhere. Upon the purchase of soda pop at the store, Americans would pay a deposit on the bottles. For returning each empty bottle, the store would refund the amount of the deposit. The local bottler retrieved the empty bottles from the store upon the delivery of soda pop and returned them to the bottling plant to be washed and refilled. In 1959, a soda pop bottle typically made 21 such trips. Although the technology has advanced significantly since 1959, the basic processes of refilling systems have remained the same.

Trippage. The term trippage means the number of trips that a bottle makes, including the initial filling, until it is taken out of circulation. A bottle can be taken out of circulation because of breakage, scuffing, or contamination. Scuff marks on a refillable bottle are made by the washing, filling, and bottle-handling machinery. Contamination may come from improper use of the bottle, including filling it with paint thinner or with another toxic liquid. Bottles come out of circulation also when they are not returned. Indeed, trippage depends on the return rate, the percentage of bottles that are returned. High return rates are an indicator of an effective deposit-return system, a system in which empty bottles are returned from the consumer to the bottling plant and in which deposits and refunds are exchanged between the bottler and the seller and between the seller and the consumer. In some European countries, deposit-return systems operate as part of bottle pools in which brewers and soft-drink bottlers share a few types of industry-standard bottles.

Technologies. Refilling systems now use advanced technologies that were developed during the 1980s and 1990s. At stores, reverse vending machines take bottle returns, pay refunds, and even allow the customer to donate their refund to their favorite charity. Lightweight, reusable plastic crates also facilitate bottle handling and make transportation efficient. Other bottle-handling machines at the store and at the bottling plant have made refilling systems highly automated. One such machine puts bottles on a conveyor which takes them to the bottlewasher. After bottles are washed, an electronic sniffer inspects the bottles for contamination. The sniffer is important especially for inspecting refillable plastic bottles because they can trap micro-organic contaminants. Refillable plastic bottles have probably been the most important technological advancement because they have enabled refilling systems to package beverages in multi-serve bottles that are lightweight and shatterproof.

Refillable container materials. Refillable bottles can be made from glass and from several types of plastics, the most common of which is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Soft drinks, water, and beer come in refillable PET bottles. Polyethylene naphthalate (PEN), which is superior to PET in many ways, is being used for refillable beer bottles in Denmark. Refillable bottles can also be made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is commonly used for one-way milk and water jugs and commonly called #2 plastic. For refillable plastic milk bottles, however, many dairies who operate refilling systems have used polycarbonate (PC) rather than HDPE.

Terminology. Beverages are delivered for consumption in one of three ways: in refillable containers, in non-refillable containers, and in bulk containers. Because refillable containers include mostly bottles but can take other forms and shapes, this web site mostly uses the term “refillable containers” rather than “refillable bottles.” Refillable containers are also called “returnable containers,” “reusable containers,” “reusable packaging,” or “deposit bottles.” Non-refillable containers, which include both cans and bottles, are also called “one-way containers,” “one-trip containers,” “single-trip containers,” “single-use containers,” “disposable containers,” “throwaway containers,” “non-returnable containers,” or “non-reusable containers.” Beverages in refillable or non-refillable containers are known as “packaged beverages.” Non-packaged beverages include draught beer and fountain soft drinks, both of which are delivered in bulk containers. Draught beer is beer that is delivered in kegs or barrels, mostly to pubs and restaurants. Although bulk containers are refillable, this web site focuses on packaged beverages. Another word in beverage packaging jargon is the term presentation, which refers to a product-container combination. Coke in a 330-ml can and Coke in a 330-ml glass bottle are two different presentations. Coke in a 330-ml can and Sprite in a 330-ml can are also two different presentations. The terms “returnable presentation” and “non-returnable presentation” distinguish presentations with refillable containers from those with non-refillable containers.

Delivering packaged beverages involves three types of packaging: primary packaging, secondary packaging, and tertiary or transport packaging. Primary packaging consists of the beverage containers themselves. Secondary packaging enables the handling of a set of containers as a single unit; examples include six-pack rings or paperboard 12-pack cases for cans, corrugated cardboard cases for cans, paperboard carrying cases for six-packs of bottles, and reusable plastic crates for bottles. Transport packaging facilitates the safe and efficient delivery of packaged beverages by truck from one point in the distribution network to another. Transport packaging usually consists of reusable plastic crates, wood and plastic pallets, and shrink wrap. Secondary and transport packaging is just as important as the beverage containers themselves in beverage packaging systems.


Refilling has been declining in most western nations, and the United States was one of the leaders in the transition to one-way containers. The increasing use of one-way containers began to concern Canadians and Western Europeans in the 1970s. To reduce litter or to prevent the further decline of refilling, many European countries and a few Canadian provinces enacted policies to promote or require the use of refillable beverage containers. These policy instruments mimic those used to address other environmental problems. Whenever legislation is proposed to promote or require refillable beverage containers, proponents of the legislation cite the environmental benefits of refilling. The environmental impacts and resource demands of beverage containers have been revealed by life-cycle analysis (LCA) studies. These studies show that refilling can reduce many of the environmental impacts and natural resource demands of beverage packaging. In fact, refilling can bring environmental benefits without requiring economic sacrifices. Refilling puts people to work, cuts the public costs of waste management, and usually reduces the prices of packaged beverages.

Refillable containers now hold most of the volume of soft drinks and beer in places that long ago had enacted effective policies while refilling was still common. These places include Denmark, Finland, and the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. For the Canadian beer industry, in addition, provincial policies have helped preserve refilling. Policies that have helped preserve refilling are in effect also in Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. The German Packaging Ordinance, in fact, has helped maintain a noticeable presence of refillable containers for beverages other than soft drinks and beer. Refilling systems thrived in most Latin American nations until 1990, the year when a deluge of one-way PET soft-drink bottles and beer cans began in some South American markets. However, Coca-Cola and other companies still put a significant volume of their soft drinks in refillable bottles in order to make packaged beverages affordable to more people in Latin America.

Some Observations

Probably most of what is written about refillable beverage containers is summarized in three major reports: the 1978 report Beverage Containers: Reuse or Recycling by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; the 1994 report Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles by David Saphire of INFORM, Inc.; and the 1999 report Reuse of Primary Packaging prepared by Andreas Golding for the European Commission. (The bibliography has more information about these reports.) Much of the material for this web site came from these reports, and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) gratefully acknowledges these sources. Based on our research for this web site, we make some observations about refilling that may not have been previously highlighted. These include the following.

  • In places that have refilling laws, survey results indicate that a large majority of consumers support these laws or prefer refillable over one-way containers when purchasing beverages. These surveys were conducted in Finland, Germany, and the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.
  • In some beverage markets, refilling may be necessary because recycling can be impracticable. In Canada, weak markets for recovered brown glass make recycling beer bottles difficult. Finland lacks much of the infrastructure needed to recycle glass, PET, and aluminum and cannot justify investments in extensive collection programs because of the low population density and the low levels of packaging waste that Finns generate.
  • Refilling laws are not necessarily trade barriers. In the early 1990s, the United States brought Canada to a hearing before a GATT panel and alleged that the refilling laws of some provinces interfered with U.S. exports of canned beer to Canada. After the panel ruled in favor of Canada in 1993, U.S. beer companies decided to work with the Canadian refilling systems rather than try to beat them. Now the major U.S. brewers cooperate with the major Canadian brewers to package American beers in refillable bottles and sell them in Canada.
  • Retailers have been driving the decline of refilling, especially for soft drinks. Although much has been written about how retailers resist refilling and how they influence beverage packaging, this research has found that this resistance and influence have been consistent over time and across the western world. Retailers began their war on refillable soft-drink bottles in the U.S. in the 1950s with their private-label canned soda pop and continue it today with the takeover of major Latin American markets by international retailing giants such as Walmart and Carrefour. In Europe, supermarket and discounter chains exploit opportunities to stock beverages in one-way containers.
  • Policies are what have preserved refilling. Although refilling in some markets is supported by the beverage industry or by an economic or other necessity, refilling is threatened in some way by pressure to use more one-way containers. Only a policy can mitigate such pressure.
  • Eco-taxes on one-way containers may be the best policies for preserving or promoting refilling. Such taxes provide an economic incentive to package, sell, and purchase beverages in refillable containers. Taxes on one-way containers can promote the environmental benefits of refilling without sacrificing choices in beverage packaging. In addition, a government can formulate a tax policy in many ways and can accumulate revenue from it. Finally, taxes on one-way containers consistently have survived international trade disputes and have proven themselves effective in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Ontario beer market.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance intends to continue its work to promote refillable beverage containers. As we update our research and findings, we suspect these initial observations will be further refined and expanded.