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Sustainable Packaging 2019

Reuse, refill, return: how a circular plastic economy can help end plastic pollution


Sara Wingstrand

New Plastics Economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation


Annette Lendal

New Plastics Economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

It is time to stop plastic becoming waste. After all, plastic is a useful and durable material and, while it is harmful in the environment, it can be every bit as valuable in the economy.

Today, most plastic packaging is made to be thrown away. An overwhelming 72% of it ends up in landfill or leaks into nature. This is not only environmentally damaging but amounts to $80-120 billion (USD) being lost to the global economy every year.

By applying circular economy principles, we can replace this linear model of take-make-waste with a system that makes the most of resources. While the linear model relies on extracting materials from the ground and making products that will eventually be discarded, in a circular economy, waste is designed out, materials and products are kept in use, and natural systems are regenerated.

Embracing a circular economy

More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, still only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling; even less is recycled into new products. We cannot recycle our way out of the plastics waste and pollution problems we see today.

Reuse is an innovative opportunity to change how we think about packaging, turning it from something seen as disposable into a valuable asset that is cleaned and refilled many times.

Reuse packaging models enable brands to build customer loyalty, optimise business operations, allow for product customisation, and cut costs. If we converted just 20% of single-use plastic packaging to reusable alternatives, it could unlock $10 billion (USD) for businesses.

Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling.

Reusable bottles and refill cups can offer a better customer experience

Reusable packaging can also be more convenient and economical for the customer. Refill options are now available in many areas of everyday life, from popular refillable bottles and reusable coffee cups, to containers for takeaways, ready meals, and home and personal care products.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently published Reuse – Rethinking Packaging, a book highlighting 69 examples of businesses that are already shifting to such successful reuse models.

Incentivising brands to use recyclable products and packaging

Such examples are new to many customers. TerraCycle is piloting Loop, a new online and physical shopping platform that features products in reusable packaging from well-known brands. Participants include Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever. Loop will charge brands a membership fee determined by the durability, washability, and life cycle assessments of their packaging, meaning brands are incentivised to design packaging to be kept in use for as long as possible.

By rethinking their products, brands can often rethink their packaging. For example, toothpaste tabs come in a reusable jar that replaces the standard, non-recyclable toothpaste tubes. These tabs are being offered by a number of personal care companies.

Brands are now developing sustainable alternatives

US startup Blueland is similarly rethinking household cleaning products. It delivers detergent as tablets, which the user mixes with water in a reusable spray bottle to make the final product at home. This significantly reduces shipping and packaging costs.

If containers can’t be refilled at home, customers are often incentivised to do so on the go. Cosmetics brand CoZie has created a bulk dispensing machine for its products, such as moisturisers and face creams, and offers discounts when empty containers are returned.

In London, startup DabbaDrop has been inspired by a century-old lunch delivery and return system from Mumbai. It uses metal tiffin boxes that are easy to stack and easy to wash, and the company delivers food by bicycle for a flat fee. The empty tiffin box is picked up on the customer’s doorstep when the next order is delivered.

The urgency to act on plastic pollution is now widely understood. Through the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, over 400 organisations, including some of the world’s largest corporations, have signed up to a clear vision of a circular economy for plastics. These organisations explicitly acknowledge that we need to rethink how we bring products to customers without relying on disposable packaging.

The time for reuse is now.

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