Reuse is certainly not a new concept in the packaging ecosystem.
Options for tertiary packaging, such as pallets, have existed for some time. It’s also common to see reusable secondary packaging – for instance, plastic produce transport containers.
Meanwhile, returnable beverage container systems have been around for decades, and updates in that realm are once again in the headlines. For one example, we can look to Coca-Cola, which earlier this year announced a goal of having 25% of beverages across its beverage brand portfolio globally sold in refillable or reusable packaging by 2030.
Yet there is also something notably different about reuse today. It has expanded into the consumer packaged goods space with full force and is now in categories such as cosmetics, home care and dry food. Reuse, which includes both returns and refills managed by businesses and by consumers, has broadened to include in-store dispensers for detergent, refill pods for deodorant and mailers for e-commerce.
However, the flurry of reused-focused pilot programs has come alongside a slew of potentially misleading claims about the goals and benefits of reuse. Does returnable packaging need to be “plastic free” and “zero waste”? Does a refillable shampoo bottle prevent ocean plastic pollution? Is a reusable bag better for the environment if it can withstand 100 cycles or “break even” after five uses?
With all the new innovations surrounding reuse, the potential for greenwashing and consumer confusion is higher than ever.
To address this reality, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has published a guide that aims to help companies better understand the nuances of reuse in order to design more effective reusable packaging systems (find the guide at sustainablepackaging.org/resources).
Drawing on interviews with reusable packaging professionals and observations from corporate sustainability documents, pilot project communications, and press releases, the guide outlines key considerations for the success and sustainability of reusable packaging systems.
Consider the following suggestions from the SPC’s Guidance for Reusable Packaging for more accurately communicating (and understanding) the realities of reusable packaging innovation.
Don’t confuse reusing with repurposing
A handful of early adopters have used the term “reusable” to describe packaging that would be more accurately described as “repurposable.”
What’s the distinction between these terms? Not every package made out of a thicker, more durable material can be accurately called reusable. For example, if your empty yogurt packaging is used by consumers to store paper clips, this makes it repurposable, but it does not mean it is reusable.
Modern-day reuse has gone beyond this kind of consumer upcycling. Instead, reuse is now defined as either the business or the consumer putting the same type of purchased product back into the packaging. That means reusable packaging has to be built into the business model for the product and be enabled by a system of reverse logistics or refill offerings. This is included in the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) definition of reuse in standard 18603, which has since been incorporated into the EU’s Packaging & Packaging Waste Directive.
In the U.S., meanwhile, the FTC’s Green Guides also offer guidance on making refillable claims: “A marketer should not make an unqualified refillable claim unless the marketer provides the means for refilling the package. The marketer may either provide a system for the collection and refill of the package, or offer for sale a product that consumers can purchase to refill the original package.”
Calling your package “reusable” without providing a way to return or refill the package either at home or in-stores therefore fails to meet widely accepted definitions of reuse, and could be a violation of the FTC’s guidance.
Plastic pollution considerations
As reuse scales, it may become the default for certain types of packaging categories or formats. But for now, most reusable options are offered alongside and in addition to single-use options. As a result, it is unclear whether reusable packaging can be hailed as a direct solution to larger materials management concerns, including the plastic pollution problem.
Consider reusable straws. They can displace plastic straws in the ocean, but this will depend on a widespread and sustained replacement of the single-use option with the reusable option.
This does not discredit the potential of reusable packaging to tackle some of the problems associated with single-use packaging, such as plastic pollution. However, plastic pollution needs to be addressed through a number of strategies, such as consumer engagement, sufficient waste management infrastructure, and reduction of unnecessary formats, not solely through reusable packaging. To prevent greenwashing and consumer confusion, it is important for brands to avoid presenting reusable packaging as the silver bullet to plastic pollution.
Complexities around ‘plastic-free’
It’s critical to keep in mind that the material used in a reusable or refillable context matters far less than the system of reuse surrounding that material. This includes factors such as the product weight, transportation distances, cleaning and sanitization practices, supporting infrastructure like dispensers and kiosks, and return/refill rates in practice.
A reusable offering made out of plastic can have a lower environmental footprint than an offering made out of aluminum or glass. One material is not necessarily better than the other, and there’s no single “right” way to design reusable packaging.
The SPC believes that the ultimate goal of reuse is to reduce the environmental footprint of the package-product system, and reusable packaging should be designed in whatever way is in service of this goal. Rather than focusing on getting out of plastic, focus on ensuring a higher likelihood of reuse by consumers.
Focus on reuse in practice
When talking about their reuse innovation, brands may highlight how many times the packaging can be reused. To build these claims, they may test their reusable option for durability or source heavy-weight material so that it can withstand thousands of uses. Unfortunately, this focus on theoretical reuse draws attention and resources away from ensuring reuse in practice.
Consider reusable shopping bags. As a result of plastic bag bans, some retailers have switched to offering reusable shopping bags made of thicker material that they have determined can be reused 100 times or more. This bag may have been selected after considerable procurement efforts, with internal debate about whether 100 reuses is “enough” to be considered durable or reusable.
Yet the most important aspect of reusable shopping bags is how often a customer actually reuses a bag. If they use their reusable shopping bag twice, it doesn’t matter that it was designed to replace many single-use plastic bags. In fact, in this case, its durability is an environmental burden – rather than providing customers with a lightweight single-use package, you’ve now switched to a packaging material that is effectively still single-use but many times more resource-intensive.
Rather than centering the conversation on theoretical reuse, brands should instead focus on reuse in practice. This is most often measured by return and refill rates, and these typically need to be quite high in order to have a lower environmental footprint than single-use.
What qualifies as “high”? According to some experts, high return rates should be defined as at least 80%, but rates at 90% or above are better. When return rates are at this level, it shows the packaging is in fact being reused regularly, helping to make a real impact on the amount of resources needed to make new material.
Tell the systems story
To more effectively communicate the environmental benefits of reuse and steer clear of greenwashing, avoid framing your product as a zero-waste, ocean-saving solution, particularly if it does not meet established definitions of reuse.
Instead, tell the story of the reusable-packaging system you’ve created: how it’s designed, who you’ve partnered with on collection and cleaning, and how your customers can start participating in today’s most exciting reuse or refill offerings.
Olga Kachook is director of bioeconomy and reuse initiatives at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the June 2022 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.