With more than five months left in 2023, Plastic Overshoot’s passage serves as a grim reminder. Not just of our limited success in mitigating the plastic waste crisis, but of the ever-increasing importance of decreasing plastic production — particularly for short-lived packaging and single-use plastics that make up 37 percent of global plastic manufacturing.
Interest and incredulity
Since I took up my circular economy post at GreenBiz in 2019, I’ve heard that reusable packaging is "trending," receiving "increased attention" or "renewed momentum" more times than I could count.
But this interest is served with equal parts skepticism: "Isn’t reusable packaging too complex, too expensive, too resource intensive?" Attempting to reverse decades of systemic efficiencies, financial incentives and ingrained consumer behavior — in short, the status quo of single-use — inspires incredulity.
Dozens upon dozens of reports explore this reuse dichotomy, written by environmental heavy hitters such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF), World Economic Forum (WEF), The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and many, many more.
Diving in, I uncovered the unbridled potential reuse could have — both environmentally and economically — if implemented correctly. Here are three metrics that prove it:
1. When it comes to waste: 50 percent of annual ocean plastic pollution could be prevented if we reused just 10 percent of plastic products, according to WEF’s paper on Consumers Beyond Waste. Additionally, 10 million tons of waste could be diverted annually if just 20 percent of packaging in the EU were reusable, according to Rethink Plastic’s Realising Reuse report.
Waste diversion is one of the more easily agreed upon success metrics for reusable packaging. Inherently, single-use packaging is wasteful: 10 percent of wood harvested, 20 percent of aluminum mined, 40 percent of plastic created and 50 percent of glass produced goes into making it.
Of course, reusable packaging is not a resource-free endeavor. Diversion success depends on the material, design and the number of reuse rotations it can achieve. If done right, it can dramatically reduce waste outputs, not to mention reduce water and material consumption.
2. When it comes to emissions: 1.3 million tons of CO2 emissions could be avoided annually if 20 percent of packaging in Europe were reusable, according to Realising Reuse. Simultaneously, an individual reusable glass bottle can result in up to 85 percent fewer emissions when compared to single-use alternatives, according to Upstream’s The New Reuse Economy report.
In spite of these stats, there is often skepticism around how much carbon savings reuse can truly achieve. What about the increased logistics, transport and washing? Adding to this doubt are contradictory reports, including a McKinsey estimate that reusable e-commerce packaging could increase emissions by 10 to 40 percent. Indeed, the parameters placed around these hypothetical reuse systems can swing emission wins or losses dramatically.
But life cycle assessments have had a nasty habit of underestimating the negative externalities of single-use and plastics. With that in mind, it’s important not to let the naysayers speak louder than those who see carbon-saving potential.
The ability for a reusable package to achieve reduced emissions will depend highly on the transportation leveraged, distance traveled and, once again, the number of reuse rotations. But as EMF’s Rethinking Packaging report says, "If done well, [reusable packaging] offers significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions."
3. When it comes to the financials: Globally, it’s a $10 billion opportunity to replace 20 percent of single-use plastic packaging with reusable materials, according to Rethinking Packaging. At the business level, shifting to reuse can garner a return on investment in just two to six years, according to Zero Waste Europe’s report, The Economics of Reuse.
Eliciting perhaps the most dubious reactions is the assumption that reuse can make financial sense. Reusable packaging systems require logistics, jobs and infrastructure — a significant upfront investment — not to mention ongoing operational costs.
But this perspective ignores that roughly 95 percent of the value of single-use packaging is lost to the economy, about $80 billion to $120 billion annually.
When reuse is implemented, that value shifts elsewhere in the economic system. Companies gain value in repeat purchases and deepened consumer relationships. Communities gain value in local jobs, economic activity and reduced waste management expenses. Consumers gain value in innovative, sustainable and convenient (yes, convenient!) products.
Although financial gains depend on a variety of factors, Upstream reports in the New Reuse Economy that reuse "reduces costs for business, local governments… and communities." With the right system — onsite dining, for example — "Reuse saves businesses money… 100 percent of the time."
From potential to essential
From environmental wins to financial gains and beyond, outcomes depend heavily on the system in play. A reusable beer bottle in Germany will have different waste, emission and financial implications from a reusable mailer in California or a refillable coffee cup in Singapore. This makes the hypothetical scenarios in many of these reports difficult to compare and easy to dismiss.
But with so much potential, it’s time to turn the hypothetical potential of reuse into reality.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the percent of plastic created for single-use packaging.