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Social entrepreneurs have the power to boost reuse. Here’s how

reuse models of consumption

Social entrepreneurs have pioneered efforts to eliminate plastic waste with innovative reuse models. Image: Unsplash / @averieclaire

Georgia Sherwin
Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives & Partnerships, Closed Loop Partners
Thom Almeida
Lead, Circular Economic Systems, World Economic Forum
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SDG 13: Climate Action

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Public sentiment on single-use plastics is rapidly evolving, underscoring the need for innovative solutions grounded in circular business models.
  • A burgeoning reuse innovation ecosystem is underway, with the amount and diversity of startups in this space growing exponentially.
  • Industry collaborations with larger companies and new policy frameworks play a vital role in creating an enabling environment for reuse innovation.

Consumer sentiment on single-use plastics is rapidly evolving. According to a recent survey from polling firm Ipsos, three quarters of people worldwide believe single-use plastics should be banned as soon as possible. This strengthens the case for innovative solutions grounded in circular business models. The transition from single-use plastic packaging towards reuse models of consumption is critical to address the harmful effects of plastic pollution on our planet, people and economies.

Transitioning from single-use to reuse models of consumption

Despite public concern about such environmental issues, consumers generally lack sustainable alternatives that are accessible and affordable. Social entrepreneurs have been at the forefront of efforts to eliminate plastic waste by pioneering innovative reuse models. Startups such as Loop by TerraCycle and Algramo were first movers in this new environment and took a risk in entering uncharted territory to shift away from traditional single-use models.

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Ingrained behaviours can also prevent a shift towards climate-friendly consumption. Companies can support people to live more sustainably through low-effort behavioural modifications such as changing the default options they offer to customers.

A 2019 campaign called #CutOutCutlery, for example, succeeded in convincing food delivery services to change the default settings for plastic cutlery from an opt-out to an opt-in model. The campaign, created by non-profit Habits of Waste, led the US state of California to enact legislation requiring restaurants and delivery platforms to provide plastic utensils only when requested by consumers.

The influence of media on consumer mindsets should also not be underestimated. Another Habits of Waste campaign, Lights, Camera, Plastic?, sets out to limit the amount of single-use plastics projected on the silver screen to end their normalisation and shift public attitudes through the power of mass media.

Celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, a prominent environmental advocate, are also drawing attention to the climate crisis through films and by investing in circular economy venture funds.

A burgeoning innovation ecosystem is underway

Since its inception in 2019, the Future of Consumption Platform’s Consumers Beyond Waste initiative has championed and supported first-mover startups Loop by TerraCycle and Algramo when reuse models were still nascent. Its mission is to accelerate innovative reuse solutions at scale.

As these early innovators have expanded globally, collaborating with leading consumer companies, the amount and diversity of reuse startups has begun to increase exponentially. This offers new solutions across product categories and geographies. The Consumers Beyond Waste initiative continues to support breakthrough innovators. It welcomed MIWA as a Technology Pioneer in early 2022, a Czech startup that develops in-store modular reusable capsules to help producers, retailers and households reduce packaging.

The initiative also engages Singapore-based Muuse as part of its community, a startup that has established a network of cafés in different cities where consumers can collect food and beverages in reusable containers and cups, which can subsequently be dropped off at participating stores and return stations. Startups have demonstrated tremendous leadership and ambition to reduce single-use plastic waste through reuse models, which has been catalysing growing momentum towards a circular economy.

Lessons learned from startup pilots

Closed Loop Partners, a New York-based investment firm and innovation centre, tests, pilots and invests in reusable packaging models to accelerate their pathway to scale. Through on-the-ground pilots, it has unearthed critical learnings that can help inform the collective advancement of reuse systems.

Its NextGen Consortium, for example, is a multi-year effort that addresses single-use foodservice packaging waste by bringing together leading brands, including Starbucks and McDonald’s, with industry experts and startups to accelerate circular solutions. In the field, it quickly became apparent that simplifying the customer sign-up process to as few steps as possible was essential for the growth of reuse. Meanwhile, gamification opportunities with points and discounts could offer further incentives and make reuse more engaging.

Technology proved to be a key enabler during pilot testing, but it was difficult to get right overall. Digital integration helps to make the reuse experience more convenient for consumers by embedding reusable packaging options into a retailer’s existing mobile app or integrating with a third-party checkout system. However, too much technology can also be a deterrent and it is crucial to strike the right balance.

Ultimately, multiple factors contribute to the success of a reuse system – from effective storytelling to engage consumers, incentivising and tracking return rates, selecting the right payment method to reduce barriers to entry, and making sustainable material choices to ensure a net-positive environmental impact, to collaborating with the right stakeholders to build towards scale.

A better enabling environment for innovative reuse models

The confluence of factors we see today – including a flourishing innovation ecosystem, coupled with on-the-ground learnings from pilots across the globe – ensures that new reuse models are well-positioned for market growth. Further collaboration with large consumer companies and the public sector is required to accelerate consumer adoption of reuse and scale innovative solutions, however.

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Government legislation and policy frameworks also play an integral role in creating an enabling environment for reuse innovation. At a national level, the public sector can set specific targets for reusable packaging. France is one of the most advanced countries and has set a 20% reduction target for single-use plastic packaging by the end of 2025, of which at least half must be obtained through reuse models.

Policymakers can also support startups through grants to fund pilot testing of new reuse solutions. For instance, the Singapore Government Eco Fund supported Muuse in developing and trialling reuse models in food courts. Finally, municipalities can provide the underlying local infrastructure (such as drop-off points, collection and cleaning facilities) required for all industry stakeholders to transition towards a reuse system.

The way forward for reuse models

The flourishing innovation landscape, media campaigns, opportunities for industry collaboration and new policy frameworks are promising developments for the transition to a circular economy through reuse models.

Importantly, ecosystem collaboration between startups, corporates and governments will enable reuse systems to scale most effectively. And the Consumers Beyond Waste initiative remains committed to bringing together multistakeholder communities to empower sustainable consumption.

We are only at the beginning of an exciting journey for reuse. Innovative models will help us achieve a world free of plastic waste.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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