Converting 20% of global disposable plastic packaging into reuse models is a $10 billion business opportunity that benefits customers and represents a crucial element in the quest to eliminate plastic pollution. All stakeholders need to join forces to create new models of consumption, production and distribution that harness this opportunity while tackling the plastics waste crisis at its source.

Reuse looks at packaging in a fundamentally different way. Rather than a ‘throwaway item’ with the sole purpose of protecting a product, packaging could be designed as part of that product, bringing benefits to businesses and consumers that disposable versions cannot.

A new book - Reuse: Rethinking packaging, released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation - showcases various reuse models that go far beyond the traditional reusable shopping bag.

From a consumer perspective, all reuse models follow either the principle of ‘refill at home’, ‘refill on the go’, ‘return from home’ or ‘return on the go’, all of which present their own opportunities and challenges.

Four models to stop plastic packaging going to waste
Four models to stop plastic packaging going to waste
Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Based on an assessment of more than 100 reuse models and interviews with more than 50 experts in the field, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has found six ways that these reuse models can bring significant benefits to both consumers and businesses:

1) Cut costs by making compact products

Supplying refills for reusable containers in highly concentrated form reduces transport costs by up to 90%. For example, Blueland offers window cleaning detergent in tablet form.

2) Meet individual needs through customization

Some reuse models allow consumers to personalize their purchases. For example, Pepsi Spire, a soda dispensing solution, lets users mix and match flavours, choose their desired quantity, and personalise the packaging.

3) Optimise operations by sharing designs

Sharing reusable packaging designs across brands and value chains achieves economies of scale for distribution and logistics. One example is the reusable universal bottle launched across all brands of Coca Cola Brazil.

4) Build brand loyalty with deposit and reward schemes

Deposit and reward schemes for reusable packaging can increase brand loyalty. For example, Repack rewards customers with discount vouchers for online shopping when they return their reusable e-commerce packaging.

5) Improve customer experience with superior design

The Loop platform improves the consumer experience by offering products from known brands in durable, reusable packaging with an enhanced look, feel or functionality (for example, double-walled metal tubs that keep ice cream cold for hours outside the freezer). This is possible because the production cost is divided over many uses.

6) Gather intelligence by using smart systems

Reusable packaging can enable the smart use of technologies such as RFID tags, sensors and GPS tracking to gain insight into business operations and consumer preferences. For example, systems such as the MIWA intelligent supply and retail system use smart reusable capsules that allow supply chain tracking, monitoring of stock, and automatic reordering.

These benefits can be achieved in combination and can lead to more successful business models underpinned by enhanced customer experience. For example, SodaStream is not only cutting shipping costs by eliminating water from their beverages and building brand loyalty through the deposit structure on the gas cylinders used to carbonate the drinks, it is also allowing for a highly customised experience where the user can mix and match flavours.

Transitioning to reuse will require rethinking business models and making investments. But there is much to be gained. Apart from the six benefits listed above, a previous study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed that converting 20% of all plastic packaging into reuse models represents a $10 billion opportunity.

The importance of reuse has been acknowledged by the over 350 signatories of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. This commitment acknowledges we cannot rely on recycling alone, and that we require a rethink of how we bring products to people. In fact, over 100 of the business signatories have committed to move, where relevant, from single-use to reusable packaging by 2025.

Launching the ‘Consumers Beyond Disposability’ platform

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption work supports exploring solutions that advance responsible patterns of consumption. For reuse to really take off, innovation, ambitious pilots and substantial investments are needed to show it can work at scale in practice. To that end, industry leaders, governments, innovators, and designers need to start rethinking the role of packaging and how consumers interact with products.

To enable the large-scale adoption of new solutions that reduce waste to begin with, the World Economic Forum is launching a ‘Consumers Beyond Disposability’ platform that brings together government, civil society and business. Through the platform, stakeholders will help identify, guide and accelerate innovative solutions that promise better outcomes for consumers and the environment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s reuse research will serve as a vital knowledge base and analytical framework to inform the platform’s multi-stakeholder agenda.

A Platform Steering Group will throw its weight behind elevating the ‘Consumer Beyond Disposability’ agenda and driving impact. The coalition can count on a wealth of learning from real-world experiments. For example, Loop is already piloting its durable packaging model in major cities and is inviting stakeholders to collectively shape environmental impact measures and new standards, as well as the incentives needed to ensure widespread adoption of new solutions by businesses and consumers. The time for stakeholders to act is now.