Are reuse and refill missing pieces of our sustainable packaging jigsaw?

Last week the Church of England and Members of Parliament pledged to go single-use plastic-free for the 40 days of Lent, while the BBC plans to be similarly plastic-free in its operations by 2020. These are the latest (at time of writing at least) in an ever-growing list of sustainable packaging commitments being made at an almost breakneck pace.

Are reuse and refill missing pieces of our sustainable packaging jigsaw?

Much of this targets plastic waste, with hardly a week going by since Christmas without a new business commitment to be more recyclable, use recycled materials, eliminating avoidable plastics, go plastic-free, etc. That’s accompanied by high profile plastic waste strategies launched by the UK government and the EU. It’s interesting times to be working in packaging design and innovation.

Amongst all this, one initiative caught my eye: as 11 brands committed to ‘100% of packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025’, as part of the New Plastic Economy pledge, and its the reusable packaging commitment I will unpack here.

Unpacking reusability

It’s fair to say I have some history with reuse and refill packaging in my sustainable design and innovation time. In Seymourpowell for instance, we had a refill innovation project on-the-go at almost every point in my four and half years of working there.

Yet beyond one notable success with a reusable pack design for Korean Telecom, we had mixed experiences with reusables, often experiencing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Three recurring barriers to packaging reuse came up time and again:

  • Supply chain limitations: new reusable and refillable packaging formats often fail to run down existing filling lines, requiring a different supply chain to that used today.
  • Retailer inertia: reusable packaging can require a different retail and point-of-sale proposition, that supermarkets can find particularly difficult to implement
  • Consumer acceptance: packaging reuse often requires consumers to change behaviour, like refill or decanting into current packs, which they are not always happy to do.

These are the sorts of systemic challenges we often find with sustainable innovation. That’s not to say refillable and reusable packaging is a bad idea; it’s a step up the waste hierarchy from todays dominant recycling and recyclability efforts, which is certainly a step in the right direction. Its just that reuse is hard to deliver in practice.

State of play in packaging reuse

Despite this, some reuse ideas are starting to gain traction: Deposit schemes on beverage bottles are a hit with governments, particularly in Scotland; water fountains are being proposed as a way to reduce single-use bottle waste, are a favourite too (notably by the London Mayor and beautifully mapped by the Refill Project). Lastly, though not specifically targeting plastic packaging, refill coffee cups are increasingly established as a way to tackle our mountain of coffee cup waste. Governments are an important and much needed driver for this, but I still believe there is space for more brand leadership and innovation on reusable packaging.

One study of refill packaging suggests 16 different refill models to apply (bulk, dispenser, door-to-door delivery, cartridge systems, etc), which does illustrate the potential for innovation and creativity in new refill and reuse formats. This a potential that I think is not fully explored today. Despite the high profile, public commitments to sustainable packaging reuse, todays practice seems some way behind.

Its actually quite hard to recall examples of packaging reuse from mainstream, everyday brands, beyond the usual eco-suspects, such Ecover’s refill stations in Health food shops or selling in bulk. Similarly Splosh and Replenish are all-to-frequently referenced as pioneering examples of refill, which still leaves me aghast at the lack of progress from big fast moving consumer goods players or retailers. Our best shots would seem to be some pilot and/or research projects that face the same barriers mentioned above. Reusable packaging must be seen as a call to arms to innovate.

Kickstarting a reuse revolution

As ever in the sustainability world, the reuse and refill revolution may emerge from more fleet-of-foot entrepreneurs and start-ups. Three of the five winners of the recently awarded Circular Design Challenge have a strong focus on packaging reuse and that does leave grounds for hope.

When we stand in the year 2025 and looked back to today, I wonder if we will have missed todays big reuse opportunity. I’ll wager that 90% of sustainable packaging innovation between now and then will focus more on the easier pickings of recyclability and recycling, or from material reduction or substitution strategies. That’s not wrong yet I do worry that reuse will be the missing piece of the sustainable packaging jigsaw.

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