In an age of rampant consumerism, we have become known as a “throwaway society.” Disposability applies to products and their packaging; it is a global problem. In the United Kingdom alone, households throw away nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year and only 12% of single-use packaging is sent for recycling.

It’s a situation that has prompted a shift towards a focus on reusability in packaging production. Reusable packaging is officially defined as: “packaging which has been conceived, designed and placed on the market to accomplish within its lifecycle multiple trips or rotations by being refilled or reused for the same purpose for which it was conceived,” . From fashion, to food, to cosmetics, many industries are reminding consumers that they should be avoiding waste—and instead reusing.

By transitioning from single-use to reusable packaging, organisations can lower production rates, reduce waste and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not a simple switch. The development of a reusable packaging solution requires the promotion of innovation. Moving from the pilot phase of a reusable project to widespread implementation requires collaboration. The final transition from implementation to acceptance requires education.

So why is reusability gaining impetus and what industries are taking action?

Staying ahead

The pressure on manufacturers and retailers to urgently address this situation is being driven by a number of forces: consumer demand, regulations and target setting.

Packaging is the first point of contact many consumers have with a product. For this reason, it is not only a visible way to communicate with consumers, but also a cause for their complaints. According to a survey by the United Kingdom charity, City to Sea, in 2021, 81% of United Kingdom citizens want the government to prioritise making refillable products easier to buy as its main strategy for reducing plastic pollution and 75% of people would like to see more refill options.

Then there’s the matter of regulations. International standards body, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has developed a policy known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which gives producers a significant responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. EPR reforms mean that businesses could pay 100% of the costs associated with dealing with packaging waste. In the United Kingdom, a recent consultation on the proposed EPR regulations (among local government, packaging designers and manufacturers and retailers) revealed the concern for the lack of focus on reusable packaging. There was support for incentives around refillable and reusable packaging as well as annual recycling targets. In response, the government plans to make a proposal with the intention of introducing new measures in 2025.

Regions and businesses are setting targets globally. For instance, the European Union strategy focuses on achieving 100% recyclability, reusability, or compostability of packaging materials by 2030. While France introduced a law in 2020 to increase the proportion of reusable packaging on the market to 5% by 2023 and 10% by 2027, Germany has set a target of 80% of beverage packaging to be reusable. Non-government organisations are seeking legally binding targets to almost entirely eliminate single-use plastics, starting with a target of a 50% cut by 2025. And targets are being matched by global brands—Evian, L’Oréal, Mars, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Walmart have all announced they intend to not only match, but also reach the European Union strategic goal by 2025 or earlier.

Prioritizing packaging

Packaging solutions are a top priority across both channels of commerce.

E-commerce

Conventional packaging from an online order makes a one-way trip from manufacturer to distribution centre and on to the customer. LDPE has become the standard packaging solution across ecommerce categories. It has a short lifespan, is designed for disposal and has poor recycling capabilities. Recent advancements have resulted in a shift towards reusable ecommerce packaging. Once the customer receives the package, they return their package either by mail or to a drop-off point. Different companies are offering such a service with slight variations – whether that’s reusable shipping pouches for delivering online apparel orders, a returnable packaging service for caterers or return and reuse of delivery packaging for online retail.

In-store purchasing

Consumers are often happy to engage with reusables at the point of purchase—and there’s a rise in packaging that can be returned in-store and or retained by the consumer for refilling.

In the cosmetics industry, reusable packaging is widely accepted. Refillable stations were pioneered in The Body Shop in 2019 which is now rolling out refillable aluminium bottles. The company plans to set up refill stations in 159 United Kingdom stores and 500 globally by the end of 2022. In France, Clarins offers customers refillable stations in some boutiques.

Meanwhile, in the food and drink industries, schemes are in their pilot stages and companies are committing to their implementation. Burger King has collaborated with zero-waste delivery system, Loop, run by Terracycle, to become the first quick service outlet to pilot a new range of reusable and returnable packaging. Beverage giant Coca Cola pledged as recently as February 2022 to have at least 25% of all beverages globally sold in returnable glass or plastic bottles or refillable containers. And coffeehouse chain Starbucks trialled a returnable cup scheme in March 2022 with the goal of having reusable solutions in all 4,000 Starbucks stores in Europe, the Middle East and Africa by 2025.

Innovate, collaborate and educate

Get started on prioritizing reusable packaging with the following actions:

  • Build an innovation ecosystem: The shift in packaging—from single-use product to a multi-use asset—relies on creating new solutions for the return and recirculation of packaging. Continuing to encourage packaging innovation can build on and improve existing reuse models. What’s more, organisations should look to identify opportunities for innovation to comply with a changing regulatory landscape.
  • Collaborate cross-brand and cross-sector: Cross-brand collaboration facilitates knowledge sharing and helps to create solutions to reduce fragmentation of the reusability process. In addition, cross-sector collaboration across third parties can help to catalyse a business’ transition to reusable packaging. In some areas of Europe, collaboration is leading to a circular shopping system and support to help shift public habits. As noted earlier, soft drinks giant Coca-Cola has announced several initiatives: partnering with Carrefour and Loop in France to pilot a circular shopping system; collaborating with Burger King and TerraCycle in the United States on another pilot; and introducing reusable cups with microchip technology for its Freestyle machines to be used at theme parks, university campuses and cruise ships.
  • Empower through education: Changing consumer behaviour requires good communication. Governments need to focus attention on education campaigns to encourage people to participate in reusable schemes. While organisations should offer clear instructions on how and where products can be reused or refilled. In the United Kingdom, The Refill Coalition’s 28-month project to conduct a lifecycle analysis of refill and reusable systems should help to establish a clear understanding of its carbon impact and play a key role in educating consumers on the benefits of reusables.

Reusable packaging is something we should all get behind as individuals and businesses. Through collaboration and education, innovative reusable packaging can become a long-term solution. Let me know your thoughts on the topic.

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