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Setting the standard for reusable packaging

These orgs want to make reuse easy for cities and companies.

Chinese food in containers against white background in shadow

Image via Shutterstock/Sahana M S

In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, reuse gained traction. Back in 2019, Berkeley, California, for one, established an ordinance for restaurants to make the switch to reusable foodware. That includes utensils, plates, cups and even smaller items such as sauce containers.

Since then, other cities in the state — Arcata, Culver City, Fairfax, Palm Springs and San Anselmo — have adopted similar ordinances, according to a recent report from Upstream.

And in Seattle, there’s an effort to create a reuse network that includes stadiums, universities, restaurants and businesses in the region. The challenge: In order to make a reuse ecosystem work with such entities, all parties involved have to be on the same page.

"When you get into reuse, when you start talking about what it's going to take to make reuse begin to take some of the market share from single use, you have to have logistics and a wash facility operation [established]," said Pat Kaufman, commercial program manager at Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). "We don't have that here yet."

But they’re working on it, along with the Partnership to Reuse, Refill, Replace Single-Use Plastics (PR3), a public-private partnership housed at Resolve, an NGO with a mission to create innovative partnerships that lead to sustainable solutions to critical social, health and environmental challenges.

In order to make a reuse ecosystem work with such entities, all parties involved have to be on the same page.

PR3 is made up of experts from different industries — including a technologist, policy and law expert, marketing strategist and researchers  — and is "crafting standards and blueprints for reuse infrastructure that can achieve a 2 percent savings of our remaining carbon budget."

Amy Larkin and Claudette Juska, co-founders of PR3, previously worked together on transforming another global system, eliminating hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from refrigeration. Their actions led to HFCs being included in the Montreal Protocol, the landmark agreement that regulates the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals referred to as ozone depleting substances.

After their HFC work, the two went their separate ways, with Larkin consulting with global NGOs and multinational corporations on plastic policy and reduction of plastic. She said she was repeatedly part of conversations where the need for reuse came to the surface as a solution.

So, she started asking herself these questions about reuse: Where will the reusable containers go? Who's going to store them? Who's going to wash them? Who's going to monitor them? Who's going to redeliver them? Who's going to inventory them? Who's going to make sure all this labor takes place in just conditions?

That’s when it struck her that she wanted to take on another type of system change. So, she called Juska.

Holding metal reusable cup of coffee — one person passing cup to another.

The PR3 standards include a component about containers that addresses minimum use cycles, labeling requirements and design. Image via Shutterstock/Monstar Studio

Gaining support and vetting standards

After deciding to work together, Larkin and Juska reached out to Nicky Davies, executive director at Plastic Solutions Fund, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors aimed at supporting the #breakfreefromplastic movement.

The fund gave them a three-year $1.1 million launch grant, which supported PR3’s standard writing and pilot testing. The first year was about figuring out the right partners. The second year was spent working with the partners on writing and vetting the standards. We’ll get to the third year later. In addition to the organizations already mentioned, PR3 founding partners, funders and advisors include Cisco, Nestle and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In the process of developing the standards, Larkin and Juska commissioned a preliminary life-cycle analysis comparing single-use plastic bottles with reusables.

"Using very conservative estimates, we found that reuse can save at least 50 percent of climate emissions," Juska wrote via email following an interview for this story. "But, if standards are in place so that cities and companies can align and create more efficiencies, reuse can save up to 80 percent of climate emissions compared to single-use." (For comparison, increasing recycled content only saves 15 percent or less, Juska noted.)

When they extrapolated this to see what would happen if 80 percent of food packaging is converted to reuse (bottles, cups, take-away food clam shells, etc.), they found reuse can reduce future carbon emissions by 9.5 to 15 gigatons between now and 2050, about 2 percent of the world’s climate budget, according to Juska.

If standards are in place so that cities and companies can align and create more efficiencies, reuse can save up to 80% of climate emissions compared to single-use.

The group also spoke with people who work at waste management companies, reuse service providers, consumer goods companies and restaurants for their insights about reuse.

"Early on, [we] realized that the standard needs to be broken into these components, because there's all these different pieces to the system," Juska said.

So, what has PR3 come up with to help guide cities and companies on their reuse journeys?

The organization’s Reusable Packaging System Design Standard for foodware — such as takeaway cups and food containers — and consumer goods such as bottled soda, jars of food, and personal care products currently includes eight parts, five of which are available for the public to view:

  1. Collection points: requirements for staffed, automated and passive collection locations
  2. Containers: minimum use cycles, labeling requirements, digital requirements, materials and container design
  3. Digital: standardizing the data fields used by all ecosystem participants
  4. Incentives
  5. Labeling and education: visual and verbal requirements, labeling requirements for containers and collection points
  6. Labor
  7. Reverse logistics
  8. Third-party washing, sanitization and handling of foodware: minimum requirements and recommendations for washing, sanitization and drying of foodware containers, as well as minimum requirements and recommendations for the hygienic handling processes for these containers during their collection and distribution

The partnership wants to eventually incorporate e-commerce packaging and secondary (or business-to-business) packaging into its standards. "But it will take some time to get to those," Juska said.

PR3’s standards — focused on collection points that are part of a shared, interoperable reuse ecosystem, and not those of independent reuse systems — are still in progress and one of the most challenging components to finalize is related to labor, Larkin said.

"It's the most complex," said Larkin, noting that the other PR3 standard proposals are largely related to efficiency. "But how labor systems work … it's people, it's unions, it's organized labor. It's the fact that a lot of homeless people live off currently recycled bottles and we're going to get rid of them. There will be some collateral, there will be some people who will lose income. And that's clearly something we have to prioritize as part of the infrastructure grid."

Larkin likened the potential transition away from plastic bottles to the need to close coal mines. "We do. And if you don't prioritize training those coal miners, shame on you, shame on us," she said. "It's the same idea. It's like, it doesn't mean you don't close the coal mines. It means that you prioritize the people."

And in this case, prioritizing people looks like training people to work and make an income in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment.

Launching pilots

It’s time to revisit year three, which started in the final quarter of 2021. Year three is about rolling out pilots, one of which will be in Seattle.

Reuse Microsite GIF

A model for Reuse Seattle. Courtesy of Cascadia Consulting Group

The start of the Reuse Seattle pilot project is near, with r.Cup, which produces reusable cups for large venues along with a turnkey cup washing and logistics service, in partnership with the Washington Environmental Council to establish reusable cup programs at several local music venues in the city. PR3, SPU and the Washington Nightlife Music Association have also been helping put all the pieces of the partnership in place. The program has also been supported by Cascadia Consulting, a local Seattle-based consulting firm that manages SPU’s green business program.

According to SPU’s Kaufman, the city already has a mature system for recycling and compostable food packaging.

"Right now, we're trying to shift our thinking from the traditional diversion program models to more of a materials management perspective," Kaufman said, noting that the goal for Reuse Seattle from SPU’s perspective is to provide an environment where food service operations in the city — from big anchor institutions such as universities to a food and chips joint on the waterfront — can choose to easily transition to a reuse model and away from the single use.

To be sure, PR3 isn’t the only organization thinking about standards for reuse. In September, Consumers Beyond Waste, an initiative of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform, released a community paper that included guidelines for building a reuse city.

And with PR3 is in its third year, it still feels like early days, with standard components still being vetted and pilots gearing up for launch. But the team has a vision for the standards to be adopted by more cities, and to establish governing that will own the standards and keep evolving them as technology advances.   

"Obviously, we're gonna need to roll this into something more long term," Juska said. "[This] was phase one of what's going to be a long-term sustainable nonprofit, I think."

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