Scaling Returnable Packaging: The Reuse Revolution to Combat the Plastic Crisis

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by | Dec 1, 2023

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In a significant study titled “Unlocking a Reuse Revolution,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation sheds light on the potential of returnable packaging to address the plastic crisis.

This comprehensive research underscores the environmental benefits of adopting reusable plastic packaging for various consumer goods categories. When implemented collaboratively across industries and operated at a large scale, returnable packaging emerges as a sustainable alternative to single-use packaging. In this article, we delve into the key findings of this study and explore the implications of a reuse revolution.

A Collaborative Effort: Input from Industry Leaders

The study is the result of a collaborative effort involving more than 60 leading organizations, including the European Investment Bank, national governments, reuse experts, and major brands and retailers such as Danone, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever. This diverse group of stakeholders came together to analyze the potential of returnable packaging in combating plastic pollution.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “Global Commitment Five Years In” publication emphasizes the urgency of shifting toward reuse. Without significant changes, the use of virgin plastic in packaging is expected to persist at current levels until 2050. Scaling reuse is identified as a crucial step in reversing the tide of plastic waste and pollution.

Environmental Impact: Maximizing the Potential

To unleash the full environmental benefits of returnable packaging while ensuring its economic viability, this study has pinpointed three crucial performance drivers with direct implications for sustainability.

Scale and Shared Infrastructure: A pivotal aspect in the quest for environmental gains is the sharing of infrastructure for activities such as collection, sorting, cleaning, and transportation. By doing so, economies of scale are achieved, significantly reducing resource consumption. Of particular significance is the collective approach to collection, which not only drives cost-efficiency but also offers customers a unified and hassle-free experience. Eliminating the need to segregate packaging and navigate multiple collection streams can be a significant environmental advantage.

Packaging Standardization and Pooling: The study underscores the importance of standardizing packaging for specific product categories as a means to enhance sustainability. Standardization streamlines sorting, cleaning, and storage processes, reducing overall resource utilization. Additionally, pooling packaging resources dramatically cuts down on transport distances, resulting in reduced emissions and cost savings. It’s worth noting that differentiation among brands and product lines can still be achieved through labels and closures, even within the framework of standardized packaging.

High Return Rates: To maximize the environmental impact, companies must focus on incentivizing returns and ensuring a seamless customer experience. Achieving high return rates is essential for these sustainable business models to thrive. Effective collaboration among all stakeholders is paramount in realizing and maintaining these high return rates. In doing so, returnable packaging can reach its full potential as an environmentally friendly alternative.

Sander Defruyt, plastics initiative lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, echoes the sentiment of a reuse revolution. He emphasizes that embracing reuse can help combat plastic pollution, reduce pressure on natural resources, and make strides toward achieving a net-zero impact. However, Defruyt also acknowledges that scaling reuse is a substantial transition that requires collaboration from businesses, policymakers, and financial institutions.

The Path Forward: Collaboration and Infrastructure

To realize a global shift towards reuse, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation advocates for a fresh approach. Leaders in the private, public, and finance sectors are urged to collaborate on shared infrastructure and packaging standardization. High return rates can be achieved through collective efforts, making reuse a reality on a grand scale.

Ambroise Fayolle, vice president at the European Investment Bank, recognizes the value of this study as a blueprint for transitioning from recycling to reuse in the global economy. Shifting towards reuse systems not only enhances circularity but also creates new business opportunities and social benefits.

Jolanda de Rooij, senior sustainability manager of circular economy at Unilever, acknowledges the importance of exploring the economic, environmental, and experiential impacts of reuse models versus single-use. However, she emphasizes that achieving economic viability at scale will require significant collaboration between retailers, manufacturers, policymakers, and civil society.

The Role of Policy in Scaling Reuse

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation emphasizes the pivotal role of policy in scaling reuse. It sees ongoing developments such as the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation and negotiations for a Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution as opportunities to implement ambitious reuse policies. These policies may include time-bound, sectoral reuse targets and enabling conditions to promote and sustain the growth of reuse systems.

In conclusion, the “Unlocking a Reuse Revolution” study highlights the potential of returnable packaging to drive a sustainable future. With collaboration from industry leaders and the support of policies geared toward reuse, the possibility of a significant increase in reuse could widely reduce plastic pollution and its environmental impact.

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