Davos Agenda

How businesses and NGOs are collaborating to develop measurement standards for reusable packaging 

The Consumers Beyond Waste Initiative moves reuse up the agenda

The Consumers Beyond Waste Initiative moves reuse up the agenda Image: Getty Images

Thom Almeida
Lead, Circular Economic Systems, World Economic Forum
Christina Carlson
Project Fellow, Consumers Beyond Waste Initiative, World Economic Forum LLC
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  • The World Economic Forum’s Consumers Beyond Waste initiative brings together leading consumer companies and NGOs to develop guidelines on plastic reuse measurement that could become the accepted standard for industry and policymakers.
  • Select companies across consumer packaged goods and retail within the Consumers Beyond Waste community have been applying and testing the metrics in real-world settings against their own reuse activities.
  • The Consumers Beyond Waste initiative will release its standardized reuse measurement guidelines at the Annual Meeting 2024 and engage in a concerted effort to promote adoption by a broader group of companies and public sector actors.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s new report, Turning off the Tap, a transition towards reusable packaging models is the single most powerful market shift that must occur in a broader systems transformation to end plastic pollution.

Reusable packaging represents a significant opportunity to shift away from disposable plastics, which is becoming such a sizeable problem that, under our current production and consumption pattern, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

Recycling alone will not solve the plastic waste crisis, as only 14% of all plastics globally are collected for recycling. Reusable packaging models that are designed to be used multiple times hold the key to achieving a world free of plastic pollution. By reducing virgin material use, reusable packaging models can lower overall costs and carbon emissions. Currently, a significant barrier to the widescale adoption of reuse models is the lack of a standardized measurement approach that enables organizations to track their progress.

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Why is reuse gaining attention?

Momentum for reuse models is accelerating across businesses and public sector organizations. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola made industry-first commitments last year to achieve 20% and 25%, respectively, of their beverage servings through reusable packaging by 2030. Against the backdrop of a flourishing innovation landscape and existing packaging sustainability commitments, these reuse targets from leading consumer packaged goods companies could signal the beginning of a broader industry movement towards reusable packaging across the food, beverage, personal care and home care sectors.

Government targets and policy proposals to scale reusable packaging models are also proliferating. At a municipal level, New York City is considering a new Choose to Reuse bill that would mandate fast-casual restaurants to serve food in reusable containers. France's government is advancing reuse nationally through its Anti-Waste Law, which embeds reuse targets in legislation and specifies a 20% reduction of single-use plastic packaging by 2025, half of which must be achieved through reuse models. At the international level, the European Commission has proposed the inclusion of reuse provisions in its forthcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation. United Nations negotiations are underway to develop a historic agreement on plastic pollution.

The reuse targets proposed for the European Union’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation
The reuse targets proposed for the European Union’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation Image: European Parliament

With first-mover companies and governments now setting reusable packaging targets, harmonising the measurement of progress is becoming increasingly vital.

Fragmentation in target-setting and measurement approaches across industry sectors and jurisdictions would slow down the widescale adoption of reuse. The World Economic Forum’s Consumers Beyond Waste initiative has brought together a coalition of leading consumer companies and NGOs to develop guidelines on reuse measurement that aim to become the accepted standard for industry and policymakers.

The measurement approach

As a first step towards standardized measurement, the organizations that are a part of the Consumers Beyond Waste initiative prioritized a set of two metrics that are seen as best representing progress on reuse.

Based on early reuse metrics ideas previously put forward by NGOs, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and World Wildlife Fund, the proposed measurement approach recognizes a clear value in distinguishing between the share of packaging in a product portfolio that is reusable and that which is reused.

The first metric evaluates the share of volume or product units sold through reuse models (e.g. litres of beverage, kilos of food, litres of personal / home care products) and can currently most feasibly be used by companies. The second metric assesses reuse effectiveness by evaluating the average number of loops achieved by reusable containers. The two metrics are most meaningful in combination and support organizations in avoiding unintended consequences, such as reusable containers achieving only one loop and potentially having a higher plastic footprint than disposable plastic packages.

Select companies across consumer packaged goods and retail in the Consumers Beyond Waste community have been applying and testing the prioritized metrics against their reuse activities in real-world settings. For instance, Unilever supports testing the reuse metrics across some of its home care and personal care products globally. Walmart is trialling the metrics against its reuse pilot with Loop in Arkansas, with consumers able to receive an assortment of products delivered at home in reusable containers.

Collaborative capacity-building

The most profound challenge to developing a standard set of guidelines for measurement lies in the myriad variations of different reuse models. There are many containers and components that enable reuse systems.

Consider a soap dispenser that requires a larger auxiliary product container to refill that smaller pump bottle multiple times. How many refills are a fair threshold for this system to be considered reuse? Can we count the soap dispenser as reuse if the pump head is single-use plastic?

The Consumers Beyond Waste community has been developing detailed guidance on parameters, definitions, inclusions and exclusions to address these kinds of considerations around complex reuse systems. As part of its measurement methodology, the coalition is also building calculation approaches along the four modalities of reuse as categorized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

1) Refill at home: Consumers refill their reusable containers at home (e.g. with refills delivered through a subscription service).

2) Refill on the go: Consumers refill their reusable containers away from home (e.g. at an in-store dispensing system).

3) Return from home: Packaging is picked up from home by a pickup service (e.g. by a logistics company).

4) Return on the go: Consumers return the packaging at a store or drop-off point (e.g. in a deposit return machine).

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

These modalities range from relatively easy for companies to measure (e.g. returnable bottles that are individually identifiable) to more challenging (e.g. estimating consumer refill behaviour at home). Currently, there is no accepted industry standard for measuring these more complex reuse applications, which means there is limited visibility into the actual reuse adoption rate and effectiveness.

The stakeholder coalition is now actively focused on evaluating capacity-building and standardization opportunities that can support organizations in achieving more holistic and robust measurement via the implementation of technology solutions (e.g. RFID tags on containers to track the number of loops) and the usage of proxy data sets (e.g. using the quantity of refill packs to estimate at-home behaviour).

What’s next?

The Consumers Beyond Waste initiative will release its standardized reuse measurement guidelines at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January 2024 and will engage in a concerted effort starting that year to promote adoption by a broader group of companies and public sector actors.

The initiative has also been actively coordinating with the European Commission to ensure the prioritized metrics and guidelines are consistent with the reuse provisions proposed in the new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation. Moving forward, the coalition will continue collaborating with businesses and policymakers to ensure harmonization of measurement, which can ultimately enable target-setting and widescale adoption of reuse models.

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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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