‘Refill revolution’ needed to dramatically slash environmental impact of packaging, study finds

These are some of the headline findings from a new study out today (22 November) from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The Foundation assessed the likely impact of dramatically scaling up reusable packaging in the food and beverage and personal care sectors. At present, just 2% of the products sold by the largest brands in these product categories are housed in refillable packaging.

The Foundation has stated that scaling this proportion to 40% would be “one of the biggest opportunities to reduce plastic pollution” through to 2040, mitigating up to one-fifth of the flows of plastics into oceans.

Getting to this point, the study found, would require a concerted effort to change packaging systems, involving policymakers and businesses at all parts of the packaging value chain.

There would need to be a shift from bespoke packaging, where different brands use different container formats, to ‘pooled’ packaging, where brands use packaging of a set size, shape and material.

There would also need to be a major scaling back of infrastructure for packaging returns, cleaning and refills – which would require a collaborative effort to maximise efficiency.

The potential environmental benefits of getting to a system in which 40% of packaging is reusable and return rates exceed 95% are significant. The study outlines opportunities to reduce emissions, water use and virgin material use, contributing to the delivery of local and global climate and nature stewardship ambitions.

In this system, the Foundation found, drinks bottles and personal care bottles cost up to 10% less per unit than disposable options. The cost gap could be even more significant as producers of single-use packaging are forced to internalize previously externalized costs to society and the environment,

But cost parity would likely be challenging without scale or efficiency. In a scenario where only 10% of the market shifts to reusable packaging, the economic benefits would be lower, per the Foundation’s forecasts.

Calls to action

The Foundation’s report concludes with a list of calls to action for various stakeholders. Policymakers have the longest to-do list, including:

  • Reforming Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems for plastic packaging
  • Setting national, evidence-based reuse targets
  • Developing and implementing health, safety and quality standards for return systems
  • Establishing deposit return schemes
  • Reviewing competition policy to remove barriers to collaboration
  • Providing grants to foster the development of shared return infrastructure
  • Setting mandatory design standards for returnable packaging
  • Spearheading public communications campaigns

Businesses, in the meantime, are called upon to stop working in siloes and start working collaboratively to combine technical expertise and create economies of scale. The report notes that, to date, efforts have created a “fragmented” market for returnable packaging.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s initiative lead for plastics, Sander Defruyt, said: “No single organisation can drive the necessary change by itself; it will require a collaborative effort from businesses, policymakers and financial institutions. Together they can kick-start the reuse revolution and get the world on track to tackling the plastic crisis.

“This analytical study gives us greater insight into the key drivers that affect the environmental and economic performance of return systems. Yet, it doesn’t have all the answers. We now need to see more research and groundwork in specific geographies and sectors to determine the best course of action and make return models at scale a reality.”

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