The Comeback of Reuse, and the Path Forward
June 16, 2021
Many feared that the COVID-19 pandemic would push climate and sustainability priorities to the backburner, but the opposite proved true. Setbacks on the use of reusable bags and cups were only temporary as the world adjusted, and overall we witnessed an increase in popularity of reusable packaging solutions that alleviate the waste associated with single-use packaging. Consumer demand, behavior changes brought on by the pandemic, regulatory shifts, technological developments, the strong business case for resource efficiency and the need to protect our environment are all driving the growth of modern reuse models. As cities, towns and states across the U.S. start to reopen, and with Starbucks’ recent announcement that personal reusable cups will be accepted once more (on June 22), it’s critical that we examine the potential of these models, why they’re growing and how to remove any potential roadblocks in their pathway to scale.
First, the basics: What do reuse models look like?
Think back to the milkman model and then add a few more bells and whistles; you’ll land at today’s optimized refill and reuse models. From personal care products to beverages, refilling reusable containers is becoming more popular. There is no one size fits all when it comes to reuse. Some models are tech-enabled, which helps companies track, discount and incentivize reusable and refillable packaging, while gaining customer insights. Other models have completely closed loop systems, with collection, washing and disinfecting stations embedded in the dispensing machines to sanitize and return packaging onsite. And finally, the simpler models of previous decades hinge on “bringing your own” packaging to collect your products.
Why are reuse models growing so quickly in 2021? What are the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on reuse?
Heightened visibility of single-use plastic waste during the pandemic has further galvanized consumers and brands
As lockdowns were implemented across the U.S., many of us turned to food delivery. Amid a global health crisis, these services were a lifeline. But after relying on them day in and day out, the resulting pile of single-use plastic containers, cutlery or sachets mounting in the trash has become too much to ignore. Headlines across the globe extol these concerns, noting that COVID-19 has “supercharged” the world’s takeout habit and left a big mess, or that plastic waste has surged as restaurants use more disposable packaging. The same trend was seen with single-use masks, which now litter streets across the globe. With this heightened visibility of waste, more consumers are now clamoring for alternatives to single-use.
Meanwhile, brands are doubling down on their sustainability efforts, including the implementation of reuse models. To name just a few examples of businesses prioritizing circularity amid the pandemic, in 2020 Closed Loop Partners convened 13 leading retailers representing more than 50,000 stores in the U.S. to reinvent the retail bag as part of our Beyond the Bag Initiative. This year, the initiative announced multiple winning reusable bag solutions that will be piloted over the coming months. Our portfolio company, Algramo, expanded to the U.S. in 2020, working with brand partners like Clorox and Colgate-Palmolive to offer refill services for household cleaning products in reusable packaging. Similarly, early in 2021, Burger King in the U.S. and Japan and Tim Hortons in Canada piloted reusable, container programs through Loop, a circular packaging platform. Just Salad also announced its plans to expand its popular reusable bowl program for digital orders.
Increased digital literacy amidst the pandemic has helped better prepare us for the reuse revolution
At the beginning of 2020, the concept of scanning a QR code to see the menu at a restaurant was likely alien, and laborious, at best. Yet today, ordering food at any restaurant often now involves scanning a QR code to see the menu. COVID-19 has fundamentally accelerated the digitization of our daily lives, as businesses and stakeholders across the globe experiment with increasingly “contact-less” or “automated” processes. The resulting uptick in e-commerce, and subsequent familiarity with a host of digital applications, including mobile wallets and tap-and-go payment systems, have helped to change habits and increase our collective digital literacy.
This progress has laid the groundwork and opened many possibilities for the future of reuse models. Reusable packaging today often harnesses state-of-the-art technology to build smart systems that provide transparency to the user and useful analytics to the producer––bringing value to both retailers and customers. QR codes or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags enable stakeholders to check a reusable product, for example a cup or bag, in and out along its lifespan, increasing visibility and in doing so creating opportunities for incentives for customers to return their packaging. The more familiar we become with QR codes or RFID, the smoother and easier the transition to reuse models will be.
Growing regulatory pressures in the U.S., including single-use plastic bans, are accelerating momentum for reuse
The landscape of U.S. policies around materials management is changing rapidly in response to the urgency of the plastic waste challenge. The recent Break Free from Plastics Act 2021 not only lays the foundation for extended producer responsibility in the U.S., but also incentivizes businesses to create reusable products that can remain in circulation for multiple uses, moving away from single-use. These shifts in federal legislation are further bolstered by single-use plastic bans across multiple U.S. states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Most recently, Washington state fast-tracked its plastics phase-out, with goals to ban single-use bowls, cups, plates, cutlery, straws, polystyrene food containers, thick plastic bags and helium balloon releases by the end of 2021, four years earlier than its initial 2025 target. As these regulatory shifts continue to gain traction, it will be critical to move toward a more collaborative and holistic approach across states to create a consistent regulatory environment, as businesses adapt their operations to integrate reuse models and other circular solutions. Right now regulations vary per place, and businesses must adapt accordingly. A more holistic approach could help align interests and accelerate consistent educational messaging to advance circularity.
The odds seem in the favor of reuse right now, but what’s the catch? What do we need to watch out for?
Reuse models must prioritize accessibility and convenience, or swathes of the population will be left behind
As the “hippies” of the 1970s championed the protection of the earth and the promotion of sustainable practices like “reuse,” so have today’s affluent “yuppies” taken up the cause. As a result, sustainable products are now most often associated with a hefty price tag. But to move from serving a niche sliver of the population to the mainstream, reuse models need to work for everyone. They can’t be limited to high earners, nor can the ushering in of “smart,” tech-enabled reuse systems forget that not everyone has a smartphone or credit card. Reuse models will be most successful when the needs of multiple stakeholders are integrated, to build widespread acceptance and accelerate uptake. We will need a multitude of innovations to fit different contexts—geographic, economic & social.
Algramo is one company that is making reuse more affordable. The company’s system not only reduces single-use packaging waste through the use of reusable containers, but it also allows families to buy what they can afford. Through Algramo’s vending machines, customers can choose to purchase the exact quantity of cleaning product they need in bulk pricing, no matter how small the amount.
Thorough analysis of the environmental impact of reuse models is necessary to evaluate any potential tradeoffs
To be the most appropriate fit for a product or packaging, reuse models must have a net positive environmental impact. Last year, our NextGen Consortium––a convening of leading foodservice brands, including Starbucks and McDonald’s––piloted several reusable cup systems designed to reimagine a more sustainable beverage experience. These pilots demonstrated the need for stakeholders to consider two core principles for product design: 1) build to last and 2) build to be recovered. And yet, all materials used for packaging, even within reuse models, have an environmental footprint. To choose the least impactful material, its entire lifecycle must be taken into account. There are the upstream environmental costs to consider––for example, how energy intensive it is to extract the material––as well as the downstream costs of recovering materials after use. The number of times reusable packaging is used also ties directly to its environmental impact, as does its end-of-life pathway. For example, glass might be aesthetically appealing for customers, but it is heavy––making it more costly and emissions-intensive to transport––and is more difficult to recover. Faced with this choice, reusable plastic options could be the more lightweight and recyclable option.
While there are no simple answers, there are many possibilities. The pandemic has urged us to rebuild the status quo, and the runway for reuse models is being cleared. As we move forward, evaluating each reusable product or packaging application in its full context––with its entire life cycle and its operating market in mind––can help ensure that the reuse models of the future are economically sound, environmentally responsible, and accessible to and inclusive of all communities. As the conditions grow more optimal for the rise of reuse, we look forward to continuing the work needed to scale these models to their full potential, including building partnerships with brands to accelerate uptake.
Closed Loop Partners invests in cutting-edge reuse and refill models through its investment funds, while also testing, piloting and scaling new reusable packaging solutions through its Center for the Circular Economy. In partnership with Upstream, Closed Loop Partners has also helped to launch the first national reuse awards in the U.S. — The Reusies. This inaugural event celebrates the pioneers, the trailblazers, the innovators and game-changing heroes who are working and advancing systemic change and solutions to create a world where we can get what we want and need without all the waste. Nominate companies and individuals here.