Making reuse an everyday reality: 3 things we must consider before scale
September 06, 2023
Reuse is now at a critical stage of development. A plethora of innovation has expanded the realm of possibilities, but what will it take to get to the point of industry-scale disruption?
Earlier this year, seven winners of the highly anticipated 2023 Reusies were announced on stage at GreenBiz’s Circularity23 Conference in Seattle. The winners encompassed corporate and community initiatives, and B2B and B2C reuse innovations across food & beverage, consumer packaged goods and fashion & apparel. Together, they provided a window into the best and brightest developments in the reuse space. Indeed, hundreds of start-ups and large corporates are working on making reuse an everyday reality for consumers, with applications as far-ranging as closed system solutions for corporate campuses and events, to software companies supporting reuse-as-a-service, and refill applications in retail or in commercial, industrial and event spaces. The potential for reuse to reduce waste has catalyzed much innovation and brought conversations to a fever pitch.
Reuse is now at a critical stage of development. A plethora of innovation has expanded the realm of possibilities, but what will it take to get to the point of industry-scale disruption? Making reuse a far-reaching and everyday reality––where reusable items are consistently and efficiently reused to make a significant difference and reduce environmental impact––requires continued testing, collaboration across the value chain, investment and supportive policy.
At Closed Loop Partners, reuse systems are an integral part of our vision of a transition away from the take-make-waste economy and toward a circular economy. When products that have historically been single-use are able to be used two, five, ten or one hundred times, and the proper recovery infrastructure is in place for their eventual end-of-life, that can make a meaningful difference on reducing valuable materials sent to landfill––and on the embodied carbon, water and materials required to produce the item in the first place.
But to get to this next horizon, a number of factors must be considered to ensure that reuse does not result in unintended consequences and instead serves a truly circular economy:
1. Closed or semi-closed reuse systems are a key starting point, especially at early stages of adoption. On-premise reuse unlocks higher return rates which can make reuse systems profitable––or at least breakeven. In open systems, as consumers use and dispose products away from point of adoption, more complex collection networks and communication strategies are needed to drive returns. For this reason, closed systems can operate with lower upfront capital expenditures and lower recurring operating expenditures until the time at which consumer behavior has shifted to be more amenable to open systems (see #3!).
2. Reuse is a hardware-first business, and requires capital and collaborations to build localized infrastructure––including collection, sorting and washing. There continues to be a shortage of washing infrastructure needed for reuse solutions, and traditional waste management players are not currently set up for the type of collection and sorting needed for reusable products that are intended to stay in circulation for more than one use. Many software-only solutions still require partnerships with washers and logistics providers. There is an opportunity for founders, corporates and municipal governments to build out these partnerships to enable reuse and share in the funding that will be required to build this new infrastructure.
3. Broad consumer adoption starts with meeting customers where they are today. There are still many customers that have yet to be onboarded into the reuse culture. As we’ve seen in our work through the Beyond the Bag Consortium and the NextGen Consortium, we need to design solutions with current behaviors in mind and support customers as they build new habits. Advancing reuse won’t happen overnight; cross-industry and cross-company collaboration, a range of solutions, clear messaging and consistent regulatory frameworks are required to effectively support consumers in adopting reuse within their communities, as the industry addresses complex waste challenges. Importantly, in-market testing plays a key role in unlocking what works effectively in the market and meets customer needs. Today’s market is complex, with diverse customer demographics and shopping habits, different operations across retailers, a range of reuse packaging materials and more that need to be considered.
We see experimentation as a critical precedent to scale. Reuse is no simple feat, and testing market fit and operation alignment is an important step to expand reuse responsibly and mitigate unintended consequences that can happen without a measured examination of new systems. But isolated, small-scale experiments will not get us there. Closed Loop Partners runs multi-brand reuse tests through its Center for the Circular Economy to identify tactics that are proven and ready to scale, as well as models that require further tweaking and iteration to deliver the expected environmental and financial outcomes. While we work to scale proven solutions, we continue to de-risk systems that need refinement. Our in-field deployments intentionally mimic large-scale, cross-brand implementation, but in a controlled manner. The insights and data gleaned from these tests are key stepping stones to new rounds of implementation and scale. Most recently, the Beyond the Bag Consortium’s largest multi-brand reusable bag pilots tested a range of reuse solutions to understand what it will take to effectively drive reduction of single-use plastic bags. Next year, the NextGen Consortium will go back into market to test the viability of reusable cup systems across multiple brands. These tests unlock important insights on what it will take to build a culture of reuse and will serve as the foundation for identifying scalable initiatives.
With all these developments, we believe we’ll get there. There are tremendous tailwinds supporting the development of reuse and a multitude of communities, innovators and corporations committed to seeing the shift through. To do so, the next five years are critical to pivot from bespoke solutions to shared frameworks, from ad hoc consumer engagement to a consistent drumbeat, and from in market tests to truly scaled solutions. We are excited to be working to advance the transition from innovation to scaled solutions that can replace single-use. Join us!
This article represents perspectives from across Closed Loop Partners, including the Center for the Circular Economy and Closed Loop Capital Management. Special thanks to Kate Daly, Carol Lobel, Danielle Joseph, Aly Bryan and Anne-Marie Kaluz for sharing their thoughts for this piece.