Many of us while discarding the plastic container that we used for our favorite laundry detergent or hand cleaner, think it goes away somewhere appropriate. However, the sad part is – less than 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally and the rest is dumped in the natural environment.
As per estimates, every year about 11 million tonnes of plastic make their way through our rivers and join about 200 million tonnes of plastic that are lying in our oceans.
That’s a massive quantity of plastic waste sitting in our oceans, impacting our marine ecosystem, and food chain, and even playing a part in ocean warming.
Plastic pollution is often attributed to single-use plastic water bottles, though there are many other culprits as well. Single-use plastic bottles that we use for our shampoos, soaps, detergents, hand sanitizers, etc have a major role to play in pollution.
These Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) are part of our daily necessities and buying it in their pre-packaged containers is the only available option.
Refillable, is a zero-waste refill service that delivers a variety of products into containers of your choice. Mumbai-based startup eliminates the single-use plastic containers needed in products like shampoos, soaps, detergents, and hand sanitizers, among others. For example, you can fill your shampoo in your own containers or a Refillable provided bottle, use it, and when it is over, you can order a shampoo refill in the same container. Refillable allows you to pay only for the product and not for the plastic container.
When the Indian government banned single-use plastic for the first time in 2018, Mumbai-based trio Purav Desai, Rahul Batra, and Lokesh Sambhwani saw this as a business opportunity to explore. Fresh out of college, they started Cupable, a company that enabled the reuse of cups for alcoholic beverages at social events. Unfortunately pandemic forced them to scale down Cupable and look for another opportunity.
With the massive problem of single-use plastic containers plaguing the FMCG industry and their success with Cupable, three of them decided to start a Refillable store in Mumbai. The company has gradually expanded to other Indian cities, with the intent to cover more.
The Refillable store brings a range of FMCG brands into their product portfolio which is delivered through trucks that are retrofitted with vending machines or by delivery agents on Electric Bikes.
We sat for a conversation with the co-founder of Refillable, Lokesh Sambhwani to understand the journey of the company, its operations, and an innovative plan to start Packaging as a Service in the years to come.
Below are the edited excerpts of our conversation, for the full discussion you can watch the video on YouTube.
Tell us about your journey that led you to start Refillable Store
I and my two co-founders were very socially inclined in our college days. We contributed to many social causes like building wells and installing solar panels in villages, skilling children from farming communities, etc.
In 2018, at the time we graduated from our college, the Indian government announced a ban on single-use of plastic for the first time. It looked to be an interesting problem for the three of us to get into.
We spent six months analyzing and studying the market landscape. As single-use plastic was banned, the food & beverage sector was left without any alternative. How can food and beverage be delivered if plastic containers are not available?
Companies started using products made with biodegradable and compostable materials, but we realized that India does not have an infrastructure to support that level of waste, therefore we ruled out these options.
We finally decided to replicate the milkman model, where a person will come to your home to deliver milk in a glass bottle which can be returned the next day. Based on this concept our first startup Cupable was launched in January 2019.
We collaborated with an alcohol beverage company that faced the problem of delivering alcohol at social events. Putting alcohol in paper cups spoils the customer experience.
In the first event with them, we provided reusable plastic cups and observed that 75 percent of people reused the cups. However, we got the feedback that people who consumed one type of beverage in a cup will not reuse the same cup for another type of beverage, for example, a cup used for beer will not be reused for gin or whiskey.
In another event, we added a washing aspect at the site, where we collected the cups, washed them, and made them available to be used again, which further increase the reuse.
Over time, we introduced efficiencies to the process and by the end of the first year, we had worked with over 150 brands at over 200 events and had revenues of more than Rs 40 million. This validated our belief in the reuse model and the demand for its services.
Unfortunately, in 2020, due to lockdowns and covid, we decided to scale down the Cupable business and look at other sectors.
We saw an opportunity in the FMCG industry, where a similar concept would work. We initially partnered with a few local FMCG manufacturers, packaged their products in aluminum bottles, and did a pilot with a small group of consumers.
Customers were to use the product and once it was empty, return the bottles for a refill. We saw a good response for this model, where more than 65 percent of consumers were returning the bottle for a refill.
However, there was a logistic challenge involved in this process of collecting the bottles, cleaning, refilling, and again delivering. Then we thought to do the refills at the customer’s doorstep and that’s how our first Refillable truck was introduced on May 2021.
Therefore our journey to this stage is more than 4 years in the making and is filled with many learnings.
Can you explain how Refillable work for consumers?
The Refillable Store is a new way of consumption, where consumers can get the same product they use without the plastic packaging.
Customers can place the order on our website and we will come to refill the product in the packaging of their choice. The deliveries are made to the customer’s doorstep through our Refillable trucks. The trucks are retrofitted with a vending machine that refills a product in consumers’ own bottles or containers.
We started with cleaning detergents and gradually added many other products to our portfolio, including groceries and essentials. As our offering is mobile, we can set up our service anywhere like at a local grocery store, supermarket, etc.
We are trying to create a complete ecosystem such that it becomes convenient for the customers.
Is the service delivered only through Trucks?
Our Refillable trucks cover high-density areas like big housing societies, vegetable markets, etc.
For doing smaller deliveries we have bikes, where we follow the swap and go, model, where customers will hand over an empty bottle and we will give them a new bottle.
What were the inspiring factors that made you establish this concept?
Our biggest inspiration was the success at Cuppable. If we could achieve it with the alcohol beverage industry, we can certainly replicate it in the FMCG space, as the thesis remains the same.
Since 2018, the government has been very proactively looking at alternatives to plastic packaging. New regulations and policies are introduced to make brands reuse their plastic packaging.
We can see major global FMCG brands like Unilever, Godrej, Nivea, and Reckitt Benckiser, among others, have committed to becoming plastic neutral. If not with Indian brands, clearly there is a global trend toward curtailing and reusing plastic packaging.
In addition, there are other companies in other countries that are doing similar work. Having said that, we needed to customize the solution which will work in India and create a supporting infrastructure around it.
How do you solve the problem of customer-specific choices with respect to brands that they use?
We have either tied up or signed non-disclosure agreements with most of the big FMCG brands and will slowly do a pilot with each of them.
In addition, we have already collaborated with the majority of the organic brands like Better Home, Herbal Strategi, Beco, and BARE Necessities among others.
For price-sensitive customers, we are working with a brand named Rossari, who are in the FMCG business for the last 30 years.
Therefore we have the entire gamut of brands and types of products that are price-competitive and free of plastic packaging. By offering the product without the packaging we are able to reduce that cost.
How do you convince businesses to get onboarded?
We have strategically reached out to all the organic brands, as the chances of them responding positively to our model are more. This aligns with its positioning as a chemical-free, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly company.
How many product categories do you currently have?
Primarily we are into the delivery of cleaning detergents like laundry, handwashing, dishwasher, toilet, etc. In addition, we are also exploring the delivery of groceries like pulses, rice, spices, etc.
How are the operations managed?
In Mumbai, we are managing the entire operations while in other cities we are partnering with businesses and companies that have the right network.
In Bengaluru, we have partnered with Hasiru Dala, a company that is working in the waste management sector for more than a decade. They help waste pickers earn a better livelihood. The partnership will help our service reach more than 200,000 to 300,000 households every day, which they currently serve for waste collection.
Similarly in Pune, we partnered with SWaCH, serving 800,000 households every day. In Surat as well we have made a collaboration with Ecolution Surat.
Are your vehicles electric or conventional?
The bikes which we use are electric and the trucks are CNG because currently there is a limitation with the load capacity of electric trucks.
How is the growth in numbers?
Our earlier experience with Cuppable was in the B2B space, but Refillable Store was in B2C, which was an entirely new segment for us.
We reached about 500 customers in the first six months and are now serving about 2500 households in the second year, spread over multiple cities. Our target is to reach 10000 customers by end of this year.
The monthly growth is about 20-25 percent which is completely organic as of now.
How have you managed your finances?
In June 2022, we raised a seed round of $250,000 from US-based investors. Apart from that, we have received government grants which helped us keep afloat.
Having said that we would need additional investments to build a refill infrastructure that will help us scale. Therefore, we are ready to partner with anyone who is willing to see the merit in what we are trying to do.
What are your plans for the future?
The mission of Refillable is to make sustainability which is affordable, accessible, and convenient. If we have to succeed in the Indian market we have to win all those three aspects.
From the short-term perspective, we will shortly launch in Pune and Surat and have plans to get into 10 Indian cities.
In the long term, we are looking at packaging as a service model where the packaging will not be owned by one brand but will be serving the entire segment. We envisage this model for the entire packaging market. Each of the packets will be designed in a manner that it can be reused and longevity will be accounted for.
Moreover, the Indian government has announced guidelines on Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) whereby the reuse of rigid plastic packaging material has been mandated. This makes all the big FMCG players start exploring options to reuse their plastic.
Looking at this, the suitable legislation, and the right design, we should be able to achieve this in the next few years and play a small/big role in this segment.
What was the idea behind the name Refillable?
The thought process was to make people understand what we are trying to do in the most direct manner. Whether it was for Cuppable or Refillable, we wanted our brand to create curiosity with the name itself.
What is your personal connection with the Environment?
To begin with, I was not a very environmentally conscious person. Over time through a series of actions and consequences you reach where you are.
Therefore I am still trying to understand how evolution works including the scientific interconnectedness of each of our systems. I am learning more about the impact which refills can make on climate change, and the effect of chemicals from the plastic waste in our water bodies playing a part in the melting of icecaps. I am really excited to learn about the impact which we make today, which can help us create a better world tomorrow.