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Reuse at an inflexion point: achieving a future free of plastic waste

Reuse holds the key to achieving a world free of plastic pollution alongside other plastic waste prevention strategies, such as eliminating packaging and redesigning product delivery.

Reuse holds the key to achieving a world free of plastic pollution alongside other plastic waste prevention strategies, such as eliminating packaging and redesigning product delivery. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thom Almeida
Lead, Circular Economic Systems, World Economic Forum
Erin Simon
Vice President, Plastic Waste + Business, World Wildlife Fund
Tom Szaky
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, TerraCycle
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Plastics and the Environment

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  • Half of global plastic production is for single-use applications, and only 14% of plastics worldwide are collected for recycling, so accelerating the transition towards reuse is crucial for solving the plastic waste crisis.
  • Momentum for plastic waste reuse models is growing, exemplified by a burgeoning innovation ecosystem and leading consumer goods companies setting industry-first reuse commitments.
  • The next few years offer an opportune moment for collective action on reuse, with United Nations negotiations underway to develop a historic agreement to end plastic pollution.

The proliferation of plastic pollution is harming our planet, people and economies. Half of global plastic production is for single-use applications, and only 14% of plastics worldwide is collected for recycling, with just 2% considered closed-loop recycling.

The production of disposable plastic also increases carbon emissions, as plastic is a by-product of petroleum and is detrimental to public health, with hazardous chemicals found in a broad range of plastic applications. From an economic standpoint, single-use plastic packaging is undesirable too, with 95% of its value lost when it is disposed of after one use. Recycling alone will not solve the plastic waste crisis; new, innovative solutions are needed.

Reuse holds the key to achieving a world free of plastic pollution alongside other plastic waste prevention strategies, such as eliminating packaging and redesigning product delivery. According to research from the World Economic Forum and Kearney, reusing 10% of plastic products can prevent the equivalent of half of annual plastic ocean waste. The United Nations Environment Programme’s report, Turning off the Tap, underscores its potential, outlining reuse as the most powerful market shift that must occur in a systems transformation to end plastic pollution.

Multistakeholder collaboration is central to achieving a successful transition toward reuse at scale. The Forum’s Consumers Beyond Waste initiative has championed reuse since 2019. It has been convening a community of changemakers across consumer companies, startups, nonprofits and governments to pave the way for new consumption patterns grounded in circular business models. The initiative previously released an economic viability framework in its flagship report, The Future of Reusable Consumption Models, to support companies in making an economically feasible transition to reuse. The community also published design, health and safety guidelines and municipal considerations for practitioners and policy-makers.

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Unprecedented momentum for reuse

Public and private sector momentum for reuse models has significantly increased over the last few years.

We now find ourselves at an exciting inflexion point with a unique opportunity to accelerate progress towards reuse models. The innovation landscape has been flourishing, with startups that pioneered new reuse solutions benefitting from enthusiastic consumer adoption and partnerships with leading industry actors. For instance, the Loop Alliance was launched at the 2019 Annual Meeting in Davos and has since shifted from pilots to scaling with key retailers, including Aeon in Japan, Carrefour in France and Walmart in the US. Meanwhile, Chilean startup Algramo now operates in over 2,000 family-owned stores nationwide, reaching 325,000+ citizens in Santiago, which equates to a penetration of 6% of the capital’s population.

New corporate commitments have emerged recently too, building further momentum for reuse, specifically in the context of pre-existing packaging sustainability commitments. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo announced industry-first targets in 2022 to achieve 25% and 20% reuse by 2030, respectively, as a share of their total beverage portfolios. Disruptive innovation will play a fundamental role in delivering on these goals, such as through Coca-Cola’s universal bottle, designed to be reused across their soda brands, and PepsiCo’s expansion of its SodaStream business, an at-home sparkling water maker.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

Innovative partnerships are playing a significant role in driving the implementation of reuse systems. For example, Unilever has been advancing reuse solutions and partnered with digital startup QYOS to install refill stations across a selection of its home care brands in Indonesia's Jakarta city. Unilever is extending its refill programme in Indonesia to communities in its ever-growing network of waste banks in the Greater Jakarta and East Java regions. In the United States, Walmart is piloting a home delivery service with Loop in Bentonville and Rogers, Arkansas, offering an assortment of products in reusable containers via Walmart+ InHome.

Government policies and targets to mainstream reuse models are also gaining momentum. For instance, the European Commission proposed reuse targets in its Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, outlining goals for 2030 and 2040 on beverages and takeaway food. Furthermore, France’s Anti-Waste Law embeds reuse targets in legislation, specifying a 20% reduction of single-use plastic packaging by 2025, half of which must be achieved through reuse.

In the US, new Extended Producer Responsibility laws in California and Oregon encourage waste reduction measures and explore funding programmes for implementing reuse infrastructure. New York City is considering a new Choose to Reuse bill that would mandate fast-casual restaurants to serve food in reusable containers. Maine recently passed a law that updates the state bottle bill to incorporate the use of refillable and reusable containers, and a National Bottle bill is being proposed to expand these programmes and support the revitalization of refill and reuse systems.

On July 27, 2023, the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on Solutions for Single-Use Waste: Expanding Refill and Reuse Infrastructure and heard testimony on the efficacy of reusable and refillable products and infrastructure as a mechanism for waste reduction and economic growth.

What’s next for the reuse movement?

The next couple of years hold important milestones for the global reuse movement and should be seen as an essential opportunity to catalyze business and government action at scale.

The United Nations negotiations currently underway to develop a historic international agreement on plastic pollution offer a chance to support the expansion of reuse consumption models. The World Economic Forum will continue to play an active role in elevating reuse as a core element in the treaty provisions, with a focus on standardized measurement. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are convening the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty to spearhead private sector advocacy around the treaty negotiations. We are also nearing the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Loop Alliance, representing a milestone to celebrate the progress achieved by this coalition of private and public sector stakeholders' efforts to bring reuse systems to consumers worldwide.

The Consumers Beyond Waste community recently built a seminal framework for standardized reuse measurement, with two prioritized reuse metrics being tested this year in real-world settings by a selection of corporate stakeholders against their respective reuse pilots and activities.

With companies and governments now beginning to set reuse targets, it is becoming increasingly important to harmonize how progress on reuse is measured. A fragmentation in target-setting across industries and jurisdictions would slow down the widescale adoption of reuse. The targets that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo set align with the reuse metrics prioritized by the community.

Fostering collaboration and partnerships will also be critical during this pivotal period to drive action on reuse. To amplify this strategic effort, the Forum will leverage its new Reuse Portal, developed with the United Nations Environment Programme and the WWF. The Portal will provide an open and collaborative platform for innovators, businesses, policy-makers and individuals to exchange best-practice reuse solutions and form connections to help fast-track the implementation of reuse.

As we look ahead towards the Annual Meeting 2024, it is clear that the coming year is the time to galvanize action from businesses and government to accelerate reuse models at scale.

The burgeoning innovation ecosystem, industry-first commitments and negotiations to develop a historic plastic waste treaty demonstrate how much progress has been made since the inception of collaborative efforts in early 2019. Most of all, these positive evolutions should instil a sense of optimism and raise our collective ambition for reuse.

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