Four Key Needs for the Growth of Reuse in 2023
February 13, 2023
Many large consumer–facing brands are making sustainable packaging commitments that go beyond recycling and into the world of reuse. That’s an important step that must be supported by other ecosystem-wide advances that make reuse an easy choice for customers.
Looking back at 2022
Last year, most reuse success stories for foodware and packaging happened in closed or semi-closed environments, where logistics management and returns are simpler to handle. Think of the cups and food containers used in venues such as restaurants, college campuses, stadiums, or office buildings. While reuse models in these closed or semi-closed spaces suffered during the height of COVID-19, due to increased sanitation concerns and venue shutdowns, 2022 saw them rebound, with significant momentum among reuse innovators in this space. Some examples include:
- r.Cup continued their partnership with AEG and NIVA, expanding past Denver to launch wash hubs in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, bringing reusable foodware to venues, movie studios, museums, sports arenas, universities and corporate campuses.
- TURN, a long-time partner of Live Nation and C3 group, continues to roll out reusable cups across their US venues, stadiums, and music festivals. Programs with Oak View Group and Delta Airlines went live last month. TURN also announced building two new US-based wash hubs, supporting growth in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
- Re:Dish worked with corporations, cultural institutions, and K-12 schools across the New York DMA to replace their single use disposable packaging with reusable containers, plates and cups. In 2022, Re:Dish expanded their Brooklyn-based industrial washing hub to enable the washing and delivery of 75,000 units daily per line.
- Bold Reuse now offers reusable food trays for the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Quarter and partnered with Park City, Utah to collect reusable takeout containers from local restaurants.
Closed or semi-closed environments are a key starting point for the transition from single-use to reuse. They offer optimal conditions to introduce customers to reuse systems, and pave the way for expanding reuse into open environments and moving the needle on eliminating single-use plastic packaging waste. In 2022, we saw progress here too, with companies launching open environment pilots throughout the U.S. and beyond. In these pilots, customers could “borrow” reusable packaging on-the-go––whether a bag, cup or foodware––and later take it back to a return bin (instead of a trash bin) in stores or select drop off points in transit hubs or public spaces once the packaging was no longer needed. Some examples include:
- Starbucks launched multiple reusable cup pilots globally, building upon the learnings from its 2021 Seattle pilot.
- Coca-Cola and Burger King partnered with Loop to test reusable cups and containers in the U.S.
- Loop also worked with major brands to launch reuse pilots at Kroger in Portland, Giant in Washington, DC, and Walmart in Arkansas.
- DeliverZero, in New York and Colorado, and Dispatch Goods, in the Bay Area, continued to expand their offerings of returnable takeout containers.
- The Rounds, a zero-waste refill and delivery service that launched in 2020 in Philadelphia, expanded its offering of home delivery of everyday goods in reusable containers to three more cities, DC, Atlanta and Miami, in ’21 and 2022. They partnered with Topanga, a software company, to track its reusable containers throughout their lifecycle.
- Topanga also partnered with Grubhub to pilot zero-waste dining on campuses nationwide, and is continuing to build track-and-trace technology to power reuse systems at scale.
- Returnity continued to grow reuse programs for major brands across diverse industries such as New Balance, Rent the Runway, and Estee Lauder while expanding into food delivery with The Rounds and others.
- Goatote launched their borrow-a-bag program at select CVS Health, Target, and Stop & Shop stores in New Jersey, expanded their program in Colorado, and launched in Ontario, Canada.
- In Canada, Muuse partnered with DreamZero and the Government of Toronto to launch a Neighbourhood Zero Waste Zone for Muuse Reusables in Toronto East, and integrated its first pizza box for takeaway customers.
- In Vancouver, Tim Hortons launched a reusable cup pilot operated by ShareWares and Return-It launched a multi-brand reusable and single-use cup collection pilot.
Getting these open environment pilots off the ground is a huge step in introducing reusable packaging to customers and operators in the field. To accelerate uptake and scale of these solutions, continued collaboration and experimentation are more important than ever.
So, what will it take in 2023 and beyond to enable uptake of reusables in open environments?
1. Legislative policies need to evolve to incorporate more explicit language around reuse and lessons learned from single-use plastic bans to avoid potential unintended consequences
In 2022, we saw regulatory pressures from single-use plastic bans growing, with many cities and states either passing or considering single-use plastic bans utilizing California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts ordinances and legislation as leading examples. Public policy plays a critical role in driving meaningful impact and oftentimes is the first step to inspire broader change. For example, in New Jersey, single-use bags were banned from grocery and super stores to help enable reuse, resulting in a significant decrease in purchase of single-use plastic bags. However, our customer research found that 87% of customers in New Jersey said they have enough, more than enough or too many reusable bags. While the policy has resulted in a significant decrease in the use of single-use plastics bags, we need to ensure complementary interventions, incentives and tactics are implemented that support customers to bring their own bags back into store so that reusable bags achieve their intended reuse. Looking ahead, policy will be a key enabler to promote a cultural shift towards reusables. Policymakers, advocacy groups and industry players will need to work together to pass regulations that advance reuse models that are measured and tracked and learn from existing examples of where policy has or hasn’t worked.
2. Widespread consistency in messaging and education for customers around reuse systems will make the difference in adoption rates
Asking customers to return packaging can be challenging. In 2022, we saw engagement growing slowly, but it will take consistent messaging over time and across industry players to create a cultural shift. Besides messaging and education, most reuse programs are still refining their business models to make their systems more convenient for customers. While many programs started with technology requirements (account creation, app download, sign-up process and more), we are seeing a shift towards solutions that, despite being tech-enabled, do not require additional digital steps from customers.
3. Identifying opportunities for shared reuse infrastructure, for example washing or transportation partners, and shared collection points will help create economies of scale
It will take more than one company to create a sustained and scalable system to collect and prepare reusable packaging for its next life cycle. Low volumes within reuse systems create challenges for financial viability, whereas shared infrastructure could drive efficiencies in the system. Ways to build shared infrastructure can include aggregating washing vendors for multiple reuse products and leveraging empty trucks on their way back from delivering goods (known as “milkruns”), among other things.
4. Data transparency and measurement will be critical in ensuring new reuse systems achieve their intended environmental, social and economic impact
Packaging material choices and end-of-life considerations are foundational to ensuring that a reuse system is better for the environment. For example, a stainless-steel cup with a return rate lower than 95% could be worse for the environment than a single-use cup given the high carbon footprint for steel production. In 2022, many brands identified polypropylene plastic as their go-to material for food-service containers. In 2023 and beyond, continuous exploration and careful evaluation of materials based on their intended use and actual (not aspirational) rates of reuse will continue to be critical. Important considerations around end-of-life recovery pathways, how energy intensive the material is to extract, cost and customer happiness need to be weighed before scaled production begins.
There is a lot to look forward to in 2023 when it comes to reuse. The landscape is rapidly evolving and growing, and the continuous learning and experimentation yields new insights and upends assumptions. At Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, within our NextGen Consortium and Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, we continue to deploy reuse solutions in the field, measuring the impacts of different policy, material selection choices, customer engagement strategies and reverse logistics mechanisms. The insights and data gleaned directly informs our strategy ahead, as we continue our focus on reuse as a critical means to addressing single-use plastic waste.