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'Taking the circular economy mass market': Study seeks to tackle reusable packaging barriers

Hubbub report explores best practices that can boost the adoption of reusable packaging systems.

Different types of food packaging (carton, cups, containers) on table against blue background.

Image via Shutterstock/Pixel-Shot

From coffee cups to cereal boxes, the past few years have seen myriad pilot projects explore how to encourage consumers to switch from single-use, disposable packaging to reusable options that can slash resource use, costs and carbon emissions.

However, the literally hundreds of projects undertaken around the world have delivered remarkably varied results and few, if any, companies have successfully embedded reusable systems right across their operations.

A major report from environmental charity Hubbub attempts to document the challenges and opportunities associated with reusable food and drink packaging systems and establish the key characteristics of successful schemes.

Launched in late June at an event at The Royal Society of Arts, the report is based on in-depth interviews with 40 organizations and individuals in the sphere of reusable food and drink packaging, as well as a survey of 3,000 consumers.

It found that there remains significant public interest in reusable packaging systems, with 67 percent of people saying they want to reduce the amount of single-use packaging they use when buying food and drink products. 

Moreover, just under three-quarters said they think more needs to be done to make it easier to use reusable alternatives, and 67 percent said they would be open to borrowing and returning a reusable container for groceries.

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The survey also highlighted how incentive schemes to encourage people to use reusable packaging can prove effective. Two out of five people said that being able to use a reusable packaging scheme for no extra cost would encourage them, while 38 percent said earning rewards or discounts for using a scheme, as well as knowing that it reduces waste and is better for the environment than single use packaging, would encourage them.

In terms of barriers, concerns that the packaging might not be clean or hygienic was mentioned by 38 percent of respondents, while 31 percent voiced concerns that the approach could cost more money and 27 percent said they were concerned about having to carry or store the packaging until it can be returned.

Hubbub, which has worked on a number of reuse schemes, including a number of high-profile trials with Starbucks, set out 10 key recommendations for companies looking to introduce reuse systems.

It urged businesses to maintain convenience for customers; minimize the price of reusable options; select effective incentives, while being aware deposits can put people off; and deploy smart packaging approaches that make it easy to return packaging.

It also advised that reuse schemes should integrate logistics into the model from the start; accurately measure full lifecycle impacts; look to collaborate across multiple brands; offer reassurance about the hygiene of reusable packaging; and explore how new technologies can simplify payments, track packaging and streamline deposit refunds.

Finally, the report calls on policymakers to explore how "a range of potential policies, standards, incentives and subsidies would support the growth of reusable systems."

"To effectively tackle the issue of packaging waste, reuse must become mainstream," said Alex Robinson, CEO of Hubbub. "For this to happen, it's crucial that companies across the food and drink industry, along with policymakers, work together and learn from each other. The 'Reuse Systems Unpacked' report is the first of its kind and brings together the findings from existing schemes and systems, along with insight into public attitudes towards reusable packaging. It's clear the public are hungry for change. We hope this report helps to accelerate progress across the food and drink industry and drives us quickly towards a society where reusable food and drink packaging is the norm."

His comments were echoed by James Pitcher, head of sustainability at packaging giant Bunzl plc, which supported the new report. "We have been using our scale and unique position at the center of the supply chain to work with our customers and suppliers to lead the industry towards a more sustainable approach to packaging," he said. "To move away from a linear mindset to a more circular one, we need to understand the opportunities and challenges involved, which is why we're pleased to have supported this work. The circular economy has to go mass market to be effective, and research like this means we'll understand what's collectively required to reach a macro-solution sooner."

Reusable packaging schemes remain a long way short of that mass-market breakthrough. A combination of public concern about hygiene and hassle, corporate concerns about setup costs, and the continuing failure of the government to emulate its European counterparts and introduce deposit return schemes and more demanding packaging taxes means most reuse systems are yet to have the transformational impact their advocates hope to see. But as Hubbub's new research and recommendations show, the myriad trials and pilot schemes of the past few years have established a set of best practices that can help boost consumer takeup and normalize an approach to packaging and waste that could yet become the norm.

This story first appeared on:

Business Green

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