What does the future hold for reusables post-Covid?

From reusable coffee cups to circular packaging solutions, packaging-free shops to refillable water bottles, it appeared as if the tide was beginning to change, albeit slowly, away from single-use towards reusables before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thanks to high-profile campaigns on the impact of items such as disposable coffee cups and plastic bottles, and TV programmes such as Blue Planet II and War on Waste that beamed shocking images of single-use plastic pollution into our homes, government and industry have made tackling single-use waste a priority.

The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the Resources and Waste Strategy made tackling single-use waste a priority, though focus has been placed on recycling rather than reuse, and a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has been approved but will not enter into force until September 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the voluntary industry initiative the UK Plastics Pact launched in 2018 has seen businesses across the packaging supply chain commit to eliminating ‘unnecessary’ single-use plastic packaging by 2025.

Public opinion was firmly behind reducing single-use – though focus fell predominantly on single-use plastics, when a recent Green Alliance report found all single-use materials made from any material still have harmful environmental consequences – and the political will was there to take action.

However, heightened concerns surrounding health and safety during the pandemic have led to a surge in single-use once again. But the question is, will this be a momentary blip? With Covid-19 having thrown many aspects of our daily lifestyle into question and causing disruption to business supply-chains, what does the future hold for reusables and moves to reduce single-use items?

Hygiene concerns

As we face the Covid-19 pandemic and try to stop the spread of the virus, the issue brought to the forefront of public attention is hygiene.

Image: Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

There has been a notable shift back towards disposables in the food service sector due to perceptions that single-use packaging can limit the spread of the virus. Government guidance suggests that the risk of cross-contamination from food and food packaging is very low, although it states that food businesses must ensure that they have the correct food hygiene and food safety processes in place to protect customers.

There have been calls that single-use packaging can help stop the spread of the virus. Executive Director Martin Kersh from the Foodservice Packaging Association wrote to Environment Secretary George Eustice pressing for an acknowledgement of “the hygiene benefits and feeling of safety and security” single-use packaging can bring for consumers and caters. Correspondingly, Kersh has twice written to Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, asking to delay the single-use plastics ban in Wales to 2022, in the conviction that single-use is the best solution psychologically for customers who fear they may inadvertently spread the virus.

In the US, there have been calls that reusable bags are hindering the fight to tackle the virus resulting in policy change; the governor of Massachusetts banned reusable bags and lifted plastic bag bans and New York state delayed its plastic ban enforcement from March to June 2020. Similarly, researchers at the US think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) claimed that reusable grocery bags pose a greater health risk than plastic ones, suggesting they harbour significant amounts of bacteria and contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

Libby Peake, Head of Resource policy at the think tank Green Alliance states that the pandemic is being “exploited by some companies cynically in the US”. This view is echoed by Greenpeace, which claims that some are “opportunistically using this public health crisis to exploit people’s fears around sanitation and hygiene to interfere with legislation banning or regulating the use of single-use plastic, most notably on plastic bags.”

Professor Edward Kosior from plastics recycling consultancy Nextek suggests that “the Covid-19 pandemic has forced a higher use of single-use packaging due to the possibility of re-infection through the use of reusables” and what “heavily influences the choice of the system is the safety and security of the packaging when food is placed into that package and the risk of contamination. “

Environmental and Communications Director Lucy Frankel from compostable packaging company Vegware, which sells compostable disposable packaging for catering, has found “an increase in demand from clients who had not previously used disposables” and existing catering partners are planning to use “more disposables than before”.

Despite these hygiene concerns, government advice currently leaves it up to food and drinks outlets to decide whether to accept reusable cups, although it does stress cups should be ‘washed thoroughly in hot, soapy water, or in a dishwasher.’ Restricted to takeaways, catering outlets have been turning back to single-use disposables with coffee shops like Starbucks quickly banning customer reusable cups at the start of the pandemic – though campaign group City to Sea has been seeking to encourage food and drinks outlets to accept reusable cups if best practices are adhered to through its #ContactlessCoffee campaign.

Despite concerns, it appears that how packaging and containers are managed and handled is more important than whether they are disposable or reusable. Libby Peake comments that “the virus can live on single-use surfaces as well as reusable ones” and it’s “more important that the material is handled hygienically throughout its chain of custody”. She adds that “people’s hygiene concerns need to be taken seriously though, and in some ways it might actually be easier to achieve with systems of reuse with short supply and return chains”.

Similarly, Stephen Clarke, Head of Communications at reusable packaging company Loop Europe, owned by recycling company Terracycle, stated that “neither single-use or reusable packaging is inherently safe or unsafe – it's how you deploy these systems”, emphasising that “cleaning is what makes reuse safe or unsafe”. 

Image:Loop. Refillable aluminium shampoo bottles from Pantene, developed for Loop

Loop’s cleaning facilities for its reusable packaging pre-existed the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning that Loop has not had to implement changes within its cleaning processes at all. In fact, demand for Loop has not been impacted negatively by the pandemic, with Clarke claiming that there has been “no consumer backlash in terms of reuse during Covid-19”, with April and May 2020 being its best performing months.

Similarly, Tom Giddings, the Sustainability Reporting Manager from packaging company DS Smith, believes the “resurgence” of single-use plastic packaging is only a “temporary outcome”. Like Loop, DS Smith has not seen a dip in demand. In fact, it rose due to the increased demand for food and other essential products during the pandemic, which increased packaging production and offset “softening demand” across other sectors.

Taking up reusables post-Covid

Despite evidence being inconclusive on the hygienic benefits of single-use items over reusable ones, a debate which had seen public opinion firmly against single-use packaging has been brought back into play, which could have significant consequences for the future of reusables. Weighing up the benefits of reusables and the impact of single-use packaging is complex as it is reliant on a significant number of factors. 

Beeswax food wrapping

Peake states: “When designed and used correctly, reusable systems should always come out on top, but packaging’s impact is influenced by a number of factors. These include the type of material, how it is sourced, how much it weighs, how far it has to travel, how many times it is used and what happens to it at its end of life.

“As a general rule, reusable containers have to be more robust, and therefore use more material and are heavier by nature. That means that they’ll have to be reused a number of times to have a lower impact than a single use container. If effective systems are set up and people use containers as they should, it shouldn’t be a problem to ensure reusables come out better.”

Peake points to Nestlé in North America, which contrasted single-use plastic bottles with aluminium, plastic and steel reusable bottles and found the break-even point for use of a reusable bottle is between 10 and 20 uses with slight variation depending on the type of bottle purchased. 

Government will have a large role to play in driving reusables, even more so now given public health concerns. The Environment Bill is currently on hold due to the pandemic, but it has the potential to drive reusable uptake by increasing the cost benefit for consumers and businesses alike.

Peake comments the Bill has the “potential to regulate, to prevent a product or material becoming waste, and to increase the reuse of products”, but she adds “there’s no guarantee these [legislative] enabling powers will be used” and it will depend on how EPR and DRS pan out.

Professor Kosior highlights that in the light of Covid-19 the “absence of the risk of infection” is key. He also adds that to incentivise reusables there needs to be a “clear application of the disincentives on waste that were in place prior to the pandemic, such as taxes on worrying single-use items.”

This point is also raised by Suez’s External Affairs Director, Dr Adam Read, who stresses that “the government needs to set the agenda” because “no brands are going to impose taxes that will make its product more expensive than somebody else’s”.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported in June 2019 that converting 20 per cent of plastic packaging into reuse models in the US is a $10-billion business opportunity that “benefits customers and represents a crucial element in the quest to eliminate plastic waste and pollution.” Peake claims this finding is “down to opportunities to improve customer loyalty through subscription services” for reusables.

Customer demand and loyalty is vital for the uptake of reusables post-pandemic. Read states: “You’ve got to bring the realities of the cost model round to each and every consumer or you’ve got to make the other systems far more attractive in terms of their accessibility.” 

He adds: “We know EPR is coming. We know that the regulations are in draft as we’ve seen the early consultations. So in my mind, the opportunity to drive refillable repairable reusables is there.”

Will compostables fill the gap?

Public opinion over hygiene issues surrounding reusables could be a hard thing to change, and one suggestion is that if single-use is to stay, then make it compostable. Whilst the current UK market for compostable packaging and other compostable materials in 2020 is around 20,000 tonnes, a new report called ‘Plastics in the Bioeconomy’ commissioned by the Biomass Biorefinery Network (BBNet) suggests that the UK compostable packaging market could grow to 100,000 tonnes and contribute £267 million annually into the UK bioeconomy by 2025.

Vegware's Bon Appetit Bowls

Though including fibre-based packaging, a lot of attention has been placed on compostable plastic packaging. Compostable plastics are polymers made from plant-based sources that are able to biodegrade in industrial composting facilities.

Frankel from Vegware claims that compostables are the “practical solution” for foodservice disposables. Environmentally, she highlights that resin from polyactic acid (PLA), the base ingredient of bioplastics, emits around 75 per cent to 85 per cent less carbon than conventional plastics, as demonstrated in peer-reviewed lifecycle analysis of PLA conducted by NatureWorks and Corbion.

Compostables pose issues in terms of collections, however, as they are not able to be recycled with conventional plastics, have the same issues with littering and entry into the residual waste stream as other single-use items and there is a lack of separate collection and treatment infrastructure to adequately deal with them at the current time.

Read points to consumer confusion on where to put compostables, leading to contamination and “inherent uncertainty” within the system. To remedy this, he suggests making compostable packaging or bags the same colour so there are not a “myriad of variants” and keeping the branding messages “consistent”.

Furthermore, Peake notes that “novel materials, like compostable plastics highlight a major shortcoming of the current disjointed system of resource management” as “the UK’s anaerobic digestion and composting infrastructure is not currently equipped to handle a whole shift to compostables.”

She explains that a “material should only be allowed on the market if they are certified to degrade through existing treatment routes, and only used in situations where separate collection can be guaranteed and where the necessary treatment infrastructure is in place.”

Vegware is attempting to address the problem of infrastructure to support composting, running its own trade collections for used Vegware in 48 of the UK’s largest towns and cities, including London and Brighton where it has just expanded, though there is a long way to go until adequate infrastructure is in place to deal with compostables on a larger scale.

Knowledge surrounding Covid-19 is threadbare; so much is unknown regarding its spread. Understandably, uncertainty surrounding the virus’ transmission generates further fear of cross-contamination. Addressing the psychological barriers to consumer uptake of reusables is essential if reusable packaging is to gain traction going forward; particularly, the assurance that the chains of custody in place for reusables are as safe as they can be. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has brought concerns surrounding hygiene into sharp focus, the climate emergency has not been forgotten. The next few months will tell whether the market for reusables has suffered a body blow from the pandemic. However, with consumer, business and government appetite for a circular economy appearing to remain intact, reusables will remain a key component in driving resource efficiency in the long term.