Hélène Lanctuit, Rich Grousset and Sarah Edwards of Eunomia Research & Consulting explore reusable packaging and ask: what can we take away?
The potential role of reuse to tackle plastic waste and deflect the growth of fossil fuel raw material use is now well known and understood. However, for reuse models to start competing with well-established and optimised single-use models, a number of roadblocks need to be overcome.
Reuse advocates, whether they represent service providers, non-profit organizations, or policymakers, often refer to reuse as a classic ‘chicken or the egg’ problem. A well-functioning, efficient and consumer driven reusable model requires a broad reusable infrastructure network in place.
To bring reuse to that level will require a massive investment in product design and infrastructure, especially reverse logistics. Investors, even those focused on environmental initiatives, are hesitant to invest behind reuse until they are convinced consumers will adopt, that there is a sufficient ROI, and that reuse wins from a sustainability perspective (from climate change to environmental justice).
System thinking teaches us to look for effective levers for intervention. In this case, those levers are policy and data. Most policies had been focusing on banning or taxing single-use products, but reuse targets are now being proposed.
At the end of 2022, reuse targets for take-away beverages, prepared food as well as for non-alcoholic beverages were introduced within the draft European Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation.
Those targets, centre of an on-going debate between the concerned actors, have been lowered from the initial proposal and will most certainly change again after the trial phase.
EU member states
In parallel, a lot has been happening at the member state level. Austria has been one of the first European countries to implement binding and enforceable reuse targets in November 2021 in their Waste Management Act by mandating a beverage reuse quota of 25% by 2025. France has a reuse packaging target law which requires 5% of packaging placed on the market to be reusable by 2023 and 10% by 2027. It has also been imposing the use of reusables in fast-food restaurants for on-site dining since January.
In the United States, despite recent efforts to push for federal container deposit return (DRS) and extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, the policy landscape remains a patchwork of state-by-state legislation. DRS has been established in 10 states (since 1971 in Oregon) and has proven that high return rates can be achieved with the proper incentives and infrastructure in place, which bodes well for reusable packaging collection systems. In contrast, EPR policies are still new and few. Five states have now passed EPR policies, with a dozen more on the horizon, but if and how EPR can be optimally implemented in the U.S. is still yet to be seen.
One particularly interesting debate currently underway is how EPR can effectively support the shift to reusable packaging. Should targets for reuse be built into the policies themselves or is it sufficient to implicitly incentivize reuse through eco-modulation schemes? Should fees be charged on reusable packaging at all under EPR and, if so, how would that work? The EPR policy introduced by Washington state (WRAP Act) includes a reuse target and California’s SB54 requires a 25% reduction in plastic packaging by 2032 which can be delivered through reuse. The next few years will be incredibly informative as these policies are implemented and refined.
Going back to the business case for reuse, in the past decade, we’ve seen an explosion in the use of lifecycle assessments to compare the environmental performance of single-use to reusable products. These studies have provided much needed ammunition to reuse advocates and have certainly helped advance reuse, but they are insufficient because they provide only part of the story.
What has certainly stood out from the evaluation of at scale returnable bottles pooling systems is the importance of standardization around reuse processes and solutions as well as the necessity for shared infrastructure, especially to manage the reverse logistics of reusable solutions. This is required to facilitate the consumer journey into a ‘return-your-empty-container’ habit but also to minimize sorting, reduce transport distances of containers and optimize washing and filling lines efficiency.
Standards are also key to define food safety rules that will enable a broad range of product applications to move to reusable systems.
Following these common objectives, approximately 60 reuse advocates have recently joined the RESOLVE’s Reusable Packaging System Standards Panel to finalize and complement 7 already drafted sets of standards.
Eunomia is developing a comprehensive economic, social, and environmental modelling tool with the aim to quantify the benefits of these various models against single-use equivalents.
In the US, city-partnerships initiatives have engaged in piloting those same standards: Seattle at first, with reusable beverage cups solutions implemented for venues. More recently, Perpetual, a non-profit organization is focusing on providing immersive reusable foodware system with a first pilot in preparation in Galveston, Texas.
In Europe, two innovative initiatives are betting on standardized and shared design for reuse:
The Refill Coalition in the UK, a joint initiative between Unpackaged and CHEP aims to develop a standard bulk dispensing system (or refill-on-the-go) comprising of closed refillable cartridges. Four major UK retailers have committed to pilot this solution in the course of 2023.
Frankfurt start-up Circolution has recently launched the other pilot of interest in Germany, in partnership with REWE, Nestlé Nesquik brand and BE.AN. One reusable packaging design is used for both brands, differentiation happening through the label. The objective is to rapidly expand the pilot across the region, experiment automatic collection by using existing reverse vending machine assets and define winning operational and logistics models.
The model will integrate data from winning concepts and could be used by reuse service providers, food and beverage brands, non-profit organizations, and policymakers alike to make more informed decisions regarding product packaging types and the necessary logistic and infrastructure.