Our circular economy team at GreenBiz is high on the future of reuse in packaging — so much that we’re hosting a one-day virtual experience on it in December. Reuse offers the possibility of decoupling packaging from extraction and waste, and that sounds pretty good.
There have been conflicting reports recently on the benefits of reusable packaging, or lack thereof, from environmental nonprofit Upstream Solutions and global management consulting firm McKinsey. What remains clear is that a well-implemented reuse program can benefit the climate, reduce resource extraction and, maybe most importantly, improve the user experience.
Here are four exciting reuse innovations we're following:
A host of companies are working in reuse with washable, polypropylene versions of formerly single-use items. I apologize in advance because I know I will miss some here, but North American companies I’m watching include r.Cup, Turn, Friendlier, Re:Dish, DeliverZero, Bold Reuse and Ozzi. A lot of work in reusable packaging for food, includes large venues and whole cities adopting reuse, reuse companies seeing return rates greater than 90 percent and wash hubs being built in cities across the U.S.
Shipping our stuff
In reusable shipping packages, we’ve seen a few things pop up and fizzle out over the last several years, but there is still a big upside to making it work. One of my LinkedIn friends pointed me to Ravioli (German), a Hamburg, Germany-based startup providing reusable shipping boxes for consumer goods. Others in this space are Returnity, Boox, LimeLoop and (my favorite) the humble intermodal shipping container. The last one is kind of a joke, but not really; it’s important to remember that some of this has been going on for decades under the radar.
Personal and home care
Cool innovations are popping up in the personal care and beauty sectors as well. Large players offering refills include Clorox and Dove, but countless other smaller players such as Blueland, Beautycounter and Izzy are quickly growing.
That brings me to Loop, the reusable packaging social enterprise managed by TerraCycle. Loop operates in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Australia to deliver reusable packaging solutions in retail spaces. Most exciting to me, Loop has partnered with Walmart, Tesco, Kroger and others, offering the potential for quick scalability across the globe.
Keeping stuff cold
The cold chain for food can be a packaging disaster: goo-filled packs; styrofoam liners; plastic bags — you get it. One innovation is Pluumo. These feather-based thermal packaging materials outperform polystyrene, are made with surplus materials and can be flat-packed while cushioning the product.
As I look across this reuse and refill ecosystem, several things become clear:
- A one-size-fits-all mentality likely won’t work for reuse and refill, but people won't participate in 100 programs for every product they buy. We’ll have to build an easy to use system of reuse and refill while also maintaining the necessary space for unique solutions across product types. This is difficult but certainly solvable.
- We may need to re-train folks in how to participate in reuse programs. If we start with closed systems such as venues and events, we can get people comfortable with reuse before spreading it into the wild.
- Pilot programs are unlikely to yield great results. In other words, because people are so accustomed to the throwaway society they’ve come to know, we can’t expect them to love small, one-off pilot programs. We’ve seen this time and time again, and we can’t continue to fall into the same failed pilot trap over and over.