Resource Use

Uptake of reusable packaging 'best alternative' to elimination of plastic

A new study from Zero Waste Europe and Searious Business suggests that large-scale reusable packaging systems could become competitive with single-use counterparts, if the right conditions are met.

Reusable Coffee CupThe study ran a cost-benefit analysis on the switch to reusable packaging across three categories: takeaway food containers, secondary transport packaging, and beverage containers; and found that system providers could hope for a return on their investment within three to four, two to three, and five to six years respectively.

The study assumed a ‘medium-to-high’ level of legislative pressure (based on the trajectory of current regulatory developments in Europe), where Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees and plastic taxes would drive up the production costs of single-use packaging, in a bid to make producers more responsible for the disposal of their products.

In this environment, reusable containers, which could cycle through the supply chain multiple times before being discarded, might become cheaper than single-use alternatives, despite the added operational costs of collecting, cleaning and recirculating each package.

The study claims that ‘after elimination, the widespread uptake of reusable packaging has the highest potential to reduce plastic production.’

According to Willemijn Peeters, CEO and founder of Searious Business: “Packaging users often overestimate the risk of switching to reusable packaging. This study mathematically proves that reuse is financially viable, and it doesn’t even begin to consider the external costs of continuing business as usual. Reuse must be a priority to prevent plastic waste before it becomes pollution.”

The study identified three key performance areas which affect the value of reuse systems: return rates, the number of average use cycles, and retention time (e.g. the amount of time the user holds on to the packaging before returning it). Even a small fall in return rates, for instance, can quickly reduce the number of packages available to the user, requiring more to be produced to compensate. The study bases its estimates for these performance factors on existing reuse systems but notes that they could be driven further towards complete efficiency by placing fees on late or non-returns.

Once returned by the end-user, packages would also need to be checked for damage, cleaned, and transported back to the system provider, who would then sell them, collecting pay-per-use fees each time. Every step in this process would require specialist infrastructure, but the study suggests that investors would make a return within a matter of years, and that ‘if we succeed in building and scaling reuse systems, they will outperform single-use systems’, ultimately benefiting both business and the environment.

Nathan Dufour, Reuse Systems Manager at Zero Waste Europe, says: “Today the question is not ‘IF’ but ‘HOW’ we need to make prevention and reuse a living reality in Europe and beyond.

“This study is yet another clear demonstration that in a matter of only a few years, well-designed high-performing systems for reuse will help reconcile economics with pressing environmental concerns.”

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