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7 tips for companies developing reusable packaging

COVID-19 has created some headwinds, with the plastics and petrochemicals industry stirring fears that reusable containers are unsanitary during the pandemic, but experts are pushing back on that narrative and experimentation is alive and well.

LimeLoop's returnable packaging

Reusable packaging is gaining steam, and brands have ample opportunity to pilot projects or join precompetitive collaborations so that they don’t have to shoulder the risks alone. That optimistic message — even amid safety concerns that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic — was the takeaway from two breakout sessions on reusable packaging at Circularity 20, GreenBiz’s online circularity event.

"We’re seeing the field of reuse just exploding," said Annette Lendal, project manager for New Plastics Economy at Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The foundation has seen a surge of interest, she said, since publishing its July 2019 report, "Reuse — Rethinking Packaging," which analyzed and mapped 69 reuse examples to help companies understand reuse models, their benefits and potential challenges.

"Everything has changed on this topic in the last three years," agreed Bridget Croke, vice president of partnerships and communications at Closed Loop Partners. “Three years ago, when we started talking to brands about refillable solutions, folks were like, ‘It’s not something we’re interested in. Our consumers aren’t ready for that.’ ” 

Attitudes are shifting, but Croke still cautioned, that "doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy for brands to make the change." It takes time to work though logistical and other issues.

COVID-19 has created some headwinds, with the plastics and petrochemicals industry stirring fears that reusable containers are unsanitary during the pandemic, but panelists said that experts are pushing back on that narrative. More than 100 scientists signed a statement in June that reusable containers are safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Greenpeace released a report in August, "Reusables Are Doable," to highlight reuse and refill solutions that ensure strong sanitization and contactless systems for refill that can be used safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are a lot of models that work for different purposes and different types of products.

"Reuse is the safest solution for COVID because no one else touched your package. You’re the only one who contacted it," stressed Jose Manuel Moller, founder of the Chilean startup Algramo. Algramo’s touchless and cashless system allows customers to buy household cleaners and other products by the gram from mobile kiosks, using durable, reusable containers that they own.

Similarly, TerraCycle founder and CEO Tom Szaky said that while some consumer-driven reuse models, such as reusable bags, have suffered, Loop’s business actually has surged during COVID, which really shows that "consumers are comfortable with professional cleaning apparatuses behind the scenes."

As reuse models become more the norm, here are some key learnings shared by Moller, Szaky, Croke and others.

1. Explore models galore

As the "Reuse — Rethinking Packaging" report lays out, there are many, innovative models for refill or reuse. In some cases, such as Loop, the brands own the reusable packaging; in other cases, the consumer owns it (such as Algramo). Alternatively, the startup offering the service may own the packaging, such as LimeLoop or CupClub.

Croke encouraged companies to think about the "sensitivity of the product" and who they want to hone the packaging for. "I don’t think there’s one key winner in the market," she said. "There are a lot of models that work for different purposes and different types of products."

Szaky added that there’s "a lot of opportunity with design … and people really want design," meaning consumers are open to innovative new approaches.

2. Collaborate to reach scale

Moller, who founded Algramo in 2012 to address what he calls the "poverty tax," or the extra cost that low-income, urban families pay to buy staple products in small or single use packages, told Circularity 20 participants, "In the beginning we were doing it with our own private-label brand, and we decided and we understood that if we collaborated with others it would be much easier to scale our impact. Coming from Chile, we wanted to scale globally."

Today, Algramo partners with Unilever and Purina and is soon bringing its model to New York City neighborhoods.

"The key point in scaling quickly is doing it through partnership instead of reinventing everything from scratch," Croke added. The brands coming together across sectors and products types are solving for some issues, such as standardization, regulatory issues and health and safety concerns, she said. "These important precompetitive collaborations [such as NextGen Cup Challenge or Beyond the Bag Challenge] can play a role in helping brands try some of these models without feeling like they have to take all of the risk for themselves."

Algramo graphic of kiosk

3. It’s all about customer convenience

Szaky said one of Loop’s big learnings is that people still fiercely want convenience above everything else. "Loop tries to take the stance of believing that consumers really want the throw-away experience and giving them that while acting like a reusable."

Loop aims to give customers convenience by allowing them to buy anywhere and return anywhere, and soon will expand from an online platform into stores such as Kroger and Tesco.

Safia Qureshi, founder of CupClub, 2018 winner of the NextGen Cup Challenge, agreed. "Buying things should be as convenient as ever," she said. "The optionality should be there for them the moment they go to the front counter or when they order online."

CupClub has developed a reusable cup system that allows customers to purchase a hot or cold beverage in one of its company’s cups, at a café or other location, and return it for cleaning and reuse at convenient drop-off sites. It’s a "return on the go" model in which the consumer borrows the packaging, Qureshi said.  

CupClub is testing its model in San Francisco in partnership with Muuse. Made mostly from recycled polyethylene and outfitted with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips or quick response (QR) codes for tracking, the cups are designed for 1,000 uses.

4. To bring back a reuse model, solve for why it went away

Reuse models are not a new idea, stressed Szaky, pointing out that beverages were sold using reusable containers in much of the world until 40 years ago.

"The reasons that went away wasn’t because it didn’t work or wasn’t safe but because disposability brought new forms of convenience," he argued. "It wasn’t just consumers but retailers who didn’t want to handle dirty bottles."

Loop’s model solves for that problem, he said, by telling retailers, "You don’t have to handle the dirties, the deposits; we’ll handle that."

A lot of new technology can take these old models [for reuse] and make them contemporary.

"We’re rebooting an old idea that the world used to be on in a meaningful way, a safe way and an affordable way. There’s a lot of learning if we honor the past and think about why it shifted to the new single use paradigm we’re swimming in today," Szaky said.

5. Consumers are more ready for reuse than you think

Ashley Etling, CEO and co-founder of LimeLoop, which rents out smart shippers through a subscription service to web stores, said she initially worried that consumer behavior change might be a challenge.

"But, as we got into it," she said, "we found consumers are so excited to be a part of it." The bigger challenges turned out to be working with outdated warehouse management systems and getting them up to speed on return label systems.

Web stores use LimeLoop shippers to deliver customers’ orders, and customers use prepaid shipping labels to return the shippers back to the nearest warehouse in need for reuse. The shippers are brand-agnostic so that they can be shared and achieve the greatest efficiencies. Both the web stores and end customers can use an app to track the shipper’s journey, and the brands can monitor their eco-impact as well.

Loop's drop off box

Ulta Beauty hopes to have a Loop drop off point in store like this. Courtesy of Loop.

6. Technology is an enabler

Moller noted that technology, such as RFID, has made Algramo easier to scale because it not only ensures traceability and quality from the brands perspective, but it also enables a system that’s much better for the user and creates an incentive to reuse the packaging.

Similarly, Qureshi said that CupClub’s whole system is hosted on a cloud service, and every product it manufactures has a digital ID. That creates a "major library infrastructure" that allows them to understand where their products are and associate them with people.

Internet of things solutions are enabling LimeLoop to rethink a system of logistics and technology in packaging that was designed for in-store retail more than 50 years ago and has resulted in high packaging costs and environmental costs as well, Etling said.

"A lot of new technology can take these old models [for reuse] and make them contemporary," Croke added.

7. Take it one vertical at a time

When an organization approaches reusability, it’s important to understand one core vertical before deep diving into others, Qureshi counseled. 

Start with one product or specific category, such as beverages, that your team can figure out from a supply chain perspective, a product perspective and the consumer perspective, she said. And when your organization understands the dynamics of that product, it can take the methodology and apply it to other product categories.

"We’ve done that strategically," Qureshi said. "Now we’re moving into food boxes and other containers."

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