Returnable plastic packaging could reduce GHG emissions by 35 to 70%


Returnable packaging

Returnable plastic packaging could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 35 to 70%, and material use by 45 to 75% for selected applications, compared with single-use plastics in the most ambitious scenario modelling, a new Ellen MacArthur Foundation study shows.

The “Unlocking a Reuse Revolution” study from the Foundation, an international charity which develops and promotes the circular economy, finds returnable packaging can “compete with the economics of single-use packaging” for certain products.

The Foundation is calling on the private, public and finance sectors to share infrastructure, standardise packaging, and work collaboratively to achieve high return rates.

Scaling reuse will be a major transition and won’t happen overnight.

Developed in partnership with Systemiq and Eunomia, the new study explores the benefits of adopting reusable plastic packaging for selected beverages, food cupboards, personal care, and fresh food items when designed collaboratively across the industry and operated at scale.

The study focuses on returnable packaging, which once bought and returned by customers, is professionally cleaned and refilled before being sold again. This differs from refill models, where customers own and refill their own packaging.

It models four different returnable packaging applications and their single-use equivalents across three theoretical scenarios:

  • Fragmented effort – A low-scaled and fragmented return system.
  • Collaborative approach – An established reuse system with the potential to scale.
  • System change – A scaled, shared, and standardised return system.

The study has been developed with input from over 60 organisations including the European Investment Bank, national governments, reuse experts and brands and retailers, such as Danone, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever.

The Foundation says the ongoing development of the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, and negotiations for a Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution, are “major opportunities” to put in place “ambitious” reuse policies.

No single organisation can drive the necessary change by itself.

Sander Defruyt, Plastics Initiative Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, commented: “Scaling reuse will be a major transition and won’t happen overnight. This analytical study gives us greater insight into the key drivers that affect the environmental and economic performance of return systems.

“Yet, it doesn’t have all the answers. We now need to see more research and groundwork in specific geographies and sectors to determine the best course of action and make return models at scale a reality. No single organisation can drive the necessary change by itself; it will require a collaborative effort from businesses, policymakers and financial institutions.”

The charity’s previous “Global Commitment Five Years In” publication found that without a “significant shift” towards reuse, worldwide virgin plastic use in packaging is unlikely to decrease below today’s levels before 2050. It also identified the scaling of reuse as one of the key hurdles to overcome to tackle plastic pollution.

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