Refill. Putting the power to reduce plastic in our hands

The global pandemic has created shock waves around the world, changing the way we live, work and travel. Unsurprisingly, it has also  massively impacted progress made in tackling single-use plastics. From the plastics industry using the global pandemic to argue that single-use materials are safer than reusables (despite no scientific evidence to support this); to governments around the world delaying much needed policy changes; and a huge increase in the use of plastic packaging amid health and safety fears, it’s been a challenging six months for anyone involved in plastic pollution campaigning. 

Amidst the chaos, at City to Sea, an environmental campaigning organisation based in the UK, we’ve been working hard to provide practical solutions to plastic pollution by championing reuse over single-use. Our vision is a world where everyone has the power to choose to reuse wherever they shop, eat and drink, and in October this year we celebrated the launch of the expanded Refill campaign, marking a game-changing moment that paves the way for much needed positive action on plastic. 

The free Refill app now connects conscious consumers to places they can refill not only their reusable water bottle, but also their coffee cup, lunchbox, groceries and even cleaning products and toiletries – making it the world’s first dedicated app to helping people refill and reuse. From a coffee on your commute to drinking water on the go, or even shopping with less packaging, Refill puts the power to reduce plastic at your fingertips. 

Powering a global Refill Revolution 

Refill started in 2015 as a drinking water campaign designed to tackle the monumental issue of single-use plastic water bottles by connecting people with free drinking water on the go. We knew that people wanted to reduce their use of plastic but didn’t know where to go (and were also too polite to ask for free drinking water if they weren’t making a purchase!). To overcome some of these behavioural barriers and challenges, we launched a location-based app and provided window stickers for businesses that were signed up so people could easily spot a refill station when they were out and about. 

Fast forward five years and we’re now a global revolution with over 300,000 app downloads, more than 30,000 Refill Stations signed up offering free drinking water globally, and 100 million pieces of plastic avoided to date. Together with our community around the world, we’ve proven that Refill has the power to create a wave of change and stop plastic pollution at source.

Convenience at a cost 

But we knew the issue was much bigger than bottled water: packaging from take-away food and drinks is a major threat in the fight against plastic pollution. Items like coffee cups and take-away containers are consistently in the top 10 items found on beaches around the world. A global report launched in August revealed that food wrappers are now the most found item on beaches around the world, overtaking cigarettes for the first time. 

In 2019, research revealed that 75% of the British public bought their lunch on-the-go each day, generating a mind-blowing 11 billion items of packaging waste a year – that’s a whopping 276 items per person every year! Our coffee on-the-go habit in the UK alone generates enough single-use coffee cups every year to stretch around the world 5 and a half times if placed end to end. 

The good news is, an estimated 1,290 tonnes of plastic could be prevented from entering the environment each year through the use of reusable food containers when purchasing takeaway food.

The Refill campaign has already proven that buying habits can change. Last year the bottled water industry reported their first decline in sales (£34.2 million loss) after significant growth for the last 5 years, and we are advocating for this trend to expand beyond water to other reuse options. 

Along with thousands of independent businesses, including over 400 zero-waste shops, several leading UK retailers and brands signed up for the expanded campaign and are listed on the app, including Costa, Morrisons and LUSH. In September, Morrisons rolled-out plastic-free fruit and veg areas in over 300 of their stores, in a bid to help customers buy bagless.

Getting reusables back on the menu after COVID 

The launch of the expanded campaign has not come without a few challenges along the way, and the global pandemic was unsurprisingly one of them. As COVID hit the UK back in April, cafes, pubs and restaurants – in part influenced by scaremongering from the plastics industry – immediately stopped accepting reusables. They instead increased their use of single-use plastic items, including cups, coffee cups, water bottles and food packaging – which consequently created a tidal wave of pollution on our streets, parks and beaches.  

Thanks to the brilliant work of UPSTREAM, Greenpeace, and over 120 health experts, we know that reusables are perfectly safe to use and that whilst public safety must remain our priority, it doesn’t have to come at a cost to our planet. 

Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been working hard to get reusables back on the menu. In May, we launched REPEAT, a reuse taskforce to bring together industry experts, scientists, businesses, retailers and epidemiologists to share best practice around operating reusables during coronavirus and where possible, solve issues, challenges and concerns around adopting reusables during COVID. By working together to galvanise our combined resources and expertise, we want to create a positive step-change to ensure that when consumers take reusables to cafes and take-aways as they reopen, they are accepted and refilled.

We also worked with experts to create a Reusables During COVID Hub with practical guidance for businesses on safely accepting reusable cups and water bottles and launched Contactless Coffee, which highlighted to businesses just how easy it is to safely accept reusable cups again. The campaign reached over 3 million people and was picked up and adopted by businesses around the world. 

We’re now calling on the remaining high-street chains and businesses across the UK to start accepting reusable coffee cups, containers and water bottles again. Our 38 Degrees petition has been signed by over 18,000 people and supported by 17 other NGOs and brands and has resulted in the UK’s two largest coffee chains – Costa and Starbucks – reversing their ban on accepting reusable cups and bottles.

Join the Refill Revolution!

At City to Sea, we're on a mission to make living with less plastic easier.  To do that we need more businesses on board, making meaningful changes to the way they operate and offering reuse and refill options for their customers. 

We’re now looking for other forward-thinking businesses in the food-to-go or retail sector to get involved, whether you already allow customers to bring their own containers or offer packaging-free options, or if you’re interested in trialling a refill service for the first time. Businesses can sign up for free to be listed on the app and benefit from increased visibility and footfall as a result.

Here’s how you can get involved today…

  1. Download (if you haven’t already) or update the free Refill app. 
  2. If you’re a business offering refills, you can register and update your listing on the app for free. Here’s how. 
  3. Become a Refill Employer 
  4. Bring the Refill campaign to your local community by starting a Refill Scheme or becoming a global delivery partner. 

For more information visit