Achieving a waste-free world will require us all to get more comfortable with experimentation. The status quo of today’s linear take-make-waste economy, which relies on a false premise of unlimited natural resources, is untenable. And as we explore more circular alternatives, we must rethink every aspect of how we operate.
At Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, our first foray into experimentation was to bring together McDonald’s and Starbucks to address a shared challenge: cup waste. This came to life in our NextGen Consortium, which aims to redesign foodservice packaging, with a focus on the fiber to-go cup. Following this, in 2020, we convened competitors CVS Health, Target and Walmart, in our Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, to identify, test and implement alternative solutions to the pesky single-use plastic bag.
Across both Consortia, we’ve sourced hundreds of innovative solutions to packaging waste, ultimately identifying 12 NextGen Cup Challenge winners and nine Beyond the Bag Challenge winners. Now, we’re in the midst of testing and piloting sustainable solutions, knowing that we need to iron out any kinks before scale. In partnership with IDEO, in 2020 we piloted two reusable cup solutions in the Bay Area in local cafes, and in 2021, we experimented with first-of-a-kind multi-retailer pilots of reusable bag solutions across Walmart, Target and CVS Health stores. From these pilots, we’ve identified five key learnings that can help inform how brands and retailers implement reuse systems within their own businesses:
1. Effective storytelling is foundational
Punchy, colorful and impact-oriented messaging is essential to engage customers
In today’s busy world, everything is competing for customers' attention. As soon as you enter a grocery store or a coffee shop, you’re bombarded by signage and products on offer. For reusable packaging solutions to stand out and succeed, it’s critical that their marketing and messaging cuts through the noise.
During the Beyond the Bag pilots, we found that 90 percent of surveyed customers reported feeling like it was important to reduce single-use plastic bags when they shop. Customers care about waste and want to see brands authentically engage with the subject. We found that an emotional story that brings to life a clear value proposition helps get customers involved for the right reasons that best support choosing reuse. Powerful storytelling adds value to reusable packaging systems by supporting increased awareness, perceived value for pricing and reuse rates.
A case study in designing for emotion and clarity
During the Beyond the Bag pilots, pilot companies ChicoBag and 99Bridges continuously iterated their messaging, testing out what resonated and what didn’t. Across three iterations, they found that leading with the "why" for reuse was more effective at grabbing a customer’s attention, rather than leading with the "how." Survey data during in-store experiences indicated progressively higher levels of customer understanding as signage evolved into more colorful signs, using simple messaging that spoke to customers' emotions and needs.
2. Convenience is king
Reuse needs to be just as easy as the single-use option.
When it comes to reusable packaging systems, any added inconvenience can decrease adoption rates. Outside of preaching to the choir — the already converted eco-warriors — most individuals are unwilling to add any steps to their day. Onboarding and signup must be as seamless as possible, matched by an equally smooth returns system.
Across our pilots, we quickly discovered that customers want a seamless retail experience when they buy a coffee or check out a bag. Many customers are reluctant to hold up the line while downloading a new app or learning about a new product, anxious not to get in the way of other shoppers. That’s why we need to focus on checkout in particular; this is a key moment in a shopper’s journey through the store. Across our NextGen pilots and Beyond the Bag pilots, simplifying the customer signup process to as few steps as possible was essential. Digital integration — such as embedding reusable packaging options into a restaurant or retailer’s existing mobile app (including sign-up), or integrating with a third-party checkout system to allow for one-stop checkout — made the experience more convenient for customers.
A case study in designing for convenient drop-off sites
Collecting reusable packaging after use is just as important as borrowing or purchasing it in the first place. If we don’t recapture the packaging, we’re back to square one of single-use packaging. During the NextGen cup pilots, we found that proximity and connectivity were key in making reusable packaging return systems convenient for customers. Proximity to transport hubs and the density of drop-off or return sites were critical for success. We used the "five-minute walk" rule of thumb to set up local clusters of cup drop-off sites, knowing that beyond this distance, people will opt to drive. In our NextGen pilot report, Bringing Reusable Packaging Systems to Life, we consider how these findings might diverge when you start thinking about rural or more remote areas, and start to consider drive-through applications.
3. Technology is a key enabler for reusable packaging systems but is hard to get right
A mix of solutions can help meet varied needs
Increased exposure to digital tools during the pandemic, whether scanning menu QR codes or ordering groceries online, has helped pave the way for today's smart reusable packaging systems, which often harness QR codes or RFID tags to help track a product across its lifecycle. Digital interfaces create opportunities for consumers to go deeper into the reusable experience on their mobile apps, which can motivate reuse through rewards and point systems, provide timely reminders or push notifications for returns, and create new educational and branding opportunities for retailers.
However, even with the ubiquity of digital systems today, too much tech can be a deterrent. During the Beyond the Bag pilots, for solutions that didn’t require customers to download the app before borrowing the physical bags, we found that many didn’t bother to formally register their bags digitally. In turn, this limited our ability to track and measure returns, which is a critical impact measurement. However, requiring sign-up via an app limits the accessibility of solutions to individuals with smartphones, creating another barrier to entry. Ultimately, it's about finding the right balance between what helps the customer without overwhelming them; it may require a mix of enabling solutions, since different users have different modes of comfort and accessibility.
4. Impact must be measured
Without making data-backed decisions we risk unintended consequences
When addressing global waste challenges, many factors must be considered when measuring impact and success, from scale to material selection choice, to the number of times a product is reused. For this article, we’ll focus on just a couple of key examples.
What we don’t want to do is replace all of the world’s existing single-use plastic bags with the same number of reusable bags.
First, let’s look at material selection. Calculations of how energy intensive the extraction of a product or packaging material is, the cost to business, and customer convenience and delight all need to be weighed before design and production begin. For example, during the NextGen cup pilots, many customers enjoyed the "premium" and "improved" experience of drinking from durable stainless steel cups, but the potential environmental and cost tradeoffs associated with sourcing and producing steel must be considered when analyzing material choices.
Second, we can never forget the importance of displacement when it comes to reusable packaging solutions. For example, what we don’t want to do is replace all of the world’s existing single-use plastic bags with the same number of reusable bags. Reusable packaging needs to be reused in order to have its intended impact.
5. Success is tied to collaboration
It takes a village to move the needle on a systemic waste challenge
To get both the Beyond the Bag pilots and NextGen pilots off the ground, collaboration was critical. The journey of a cup or bag looks quite different when it’s not destined for landfill, and many moments along the way demand diverse stakeholders to partner (see Fig.1 below); including sign-up, checkout, returns and collection, washing and sanitizing, restocking and sales.
Collaboration is also the key enabler for scale. The Beyond the Bag pilots were first-of-a-kind multi-retailer pilots, with CVS Health, Walmart and Target banding together to test reuse across nine of their stores. The interplay among leading retailers’ stores sets an exciting precedent, with a customer able to borrow a bag from one store and drop it off at another retailer. Ultimately, collaboration is the key to unlock pathways to scale reuse systems, and transition beyond our wasteful linear system into a future built upon circular systems that are affordable, convenient and protect the environment we share.