Back to Grandma’s Time of Reusable Bottles

Back to Grandma’s Time of Reusable Bottles

(A milk bottle.  Source:

When today’s young Chinese parents were still little kids, milk was delivered in reusable glass bottles to the door. What a sweet childhood memory to carry the Arctic-brand (北冰洋) soda bottles and white porcelain yogurt jars back to the store for refund!

(Bottles of Arctic-brand soda.  Source:

As China’s consumer market boomed, grocery stores became larger and faster paced, more similar to those in Europe and the US. Reusability lost to convenience. Glass containers were replaced by aluminum, plastic or paper packages. Bottle exchange and liquid refill mostly became things of the past.

(Cans of Arctic-brand soda.  Source:

In recent years, the tide is reversing, in both US and China.

As the environmental impact of consumer packaging increasingly become a global concern, companies large and small are finding new appeal in old-style reusable containers.

Last week, Wall Street Journal published an article “The World’s Biggest Brands Want You to Refill Your Orange Juice and Deodorant”. As Unilever CEO Alan Jope put it, “I sometimes wonder if it’s a fair accusation that we’re in the branded litter business.” That’s why Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and PepsiCo are among 25 companies to start selling some products in reusable containers this summer.

There are eco-conscious start-ups focusing on just that. My Stanford classmate Tim Murphy is the CEO of Branch Basics, a 12-year-old human-safe cleaning products maker, founded by an aunt-niece-BFF three lady team. Branch Basics advocates “Reuse, Refill, Repeat”. I tried to use their plant & mineral based concentrate, diluted in different ratios for different purposes in these elegant reusable bottles.

(Branch Basics bottle set with concentrate.  Photo by Rong Zhang.)

How about consumers in China? Would they be willing to go back in time and treat the planet better by letting go those convenient throw-away small packages?

I used Yimian Data’s e-commerce trend monitoring tool, YiDrone, to check out three categories. Dish soap, shampoo, and body wash. I first checked the overall year-on-year sales growth of each category, then I narrowed down the search using the keyword “family pack”, which means large packages designed for either bulk usage or smaller container refill. I see a consistent pattern of “family pack” growth outpaced the overall category in all three products.

(Charted using, a free lightweight online data visualization tool offered by Yimian Data. )

I feel happy about seeing this trend through data. Every refill means one fewer plastic bottle in the landfill.

If my grandma was still alive today, she would have loved to hear that the reusable bottles are in, again.


Contact me at zhangrong[at]yimian[dot]com[dot]cn for more information about Yimian Data.


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