Debunking Durability: How Durable Does Reusable Packaging Need to Be?
October 24, 2023
When reuse started regaining popularity in the United States, it was hard to imagine how any version of reuse could be worse for the environment than single-use equivalents. Today, there’s growing awareness of potential unintended consequences of reuse if return rates, and associated packaging use cycles, are not high enough to justify the added durability (and material) that comes with reusable packaging.
With the newest wave of reuse policy discussions and renewed efforts to integrate reuse models into reduction requirements of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills, there is growing confusion on what defines a “good” reuse system. Although many metrics are cited, use cycles or return rates paint the most robust picture of how well a reuse system is operating in practice. As we build the reuse systems of tomorrow, a universal understanding of such metrics is essential. So, what is a high enough return rate?
The reality of today’s reuse rates
Across different sources, the number of reuses required to offset the added durability and materials needed for reusable packaging (also known as the breakeven point) is said to range from about five to 800 uses. But in today’s reality, reusable packaging is often reused less than five times, based on the results of past and ongoing open-system reuse pilots. For containers to have five uses on average in their lifetime, return rates need to be 80%. For a 90% return rate––which we have yet to see in open systems at scale––containers are used only 10 times on average*.
Achieving five to 10 uses is still a dream state for most open-environment reuse systems, yet we see packaging designers choosing and testing packaging materials to withstand dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of uses. Brands and manufacturers designing reusable containers are often reacting to regulations that set up unreasonably high use targets for open-system models. CalRecycle suggests washable as something that lasts 780 cycles. The Choose2Reuse drafted regulation cited a requirement of about 1,000 cycles. These types of requirements force the industry to design packaging for aspirational return rates, making breakeven points even higher.
Why designing for current state matters
To mitigate the environmental impact of reuse, reusable packaging needs to be designed for current return rates. Otherwise, you limit the environmental benefits by potentially generating a higher volume of materials, that are less likely to be recovered.
Additionally, durability will naturally be a function of usage environment; reusables must be appropriately designed for their expected use case. Items made for more closed environments, such as dine-in at a restaurant or for a drink at a venue, may have higher use cycles than open environments, such as takeaway or delivery.
The bottom line: as we transition toward more widespread reuse, we need to design with actual return rates and uses cases in mind. We must also ensure that containers that are not returned for reuse are recycled at their end-of-life (learn more about designing for end-of-life here).
While we work towards building the convenience and incentives needed to increase return rates, we must ask: what’s the least amount of material that we can put in a returnable packaging solution today to make it durable enough to survive five to 10 uses? Will it look sufficiently like a durable reusable to signal returnability? And ultimately, how many cycles does a container need to survive to beat its single-use equivalent? For open reuse systems today, when the answer is less than five or so cycles, the packaging design is going in the right direction.
Reusable packaging is at an important inflection point. New innovations are expanding what is possible, but to ensure that reuse does not generate unintended environmental consequences, reusable packaging needs to be thoughtfully designed with today’s reality in mind. Designing reusable packaging with current return rates, use cases and eventual end-of-life in mind are all critical steps to building a reuse system that truly advances a circular economy and a waste-free future.