If you follow reuse news, you may have noticed reusable packaging started 2023 with some impressive legislative tailwinds in Europe. France recently banned fast-food restaurants from serving disposable plates, cups and tableware to anyone eating or drinking on site, and in Germany, every business offering food or drinks to go must provide reusable containers.
Like twisty cobblestone streets and month-long vacations, it’s tempting to file these policies under "Europeans being European." This kind of mandated reuse would never work in the United States, right? Indeed, based on the minimal and recently decreasing rollout of major consumer packaged goods companies’ reuse offerings, it seems many brands believe U.S. consumers aren’t motivated enough to participate in reuse and first need to be thoroughly educated and coaxed before reuse in America can take off.
So, are consumers in Europe really more willing to engage with reuse than their American counterparts? Recent surveys and pilots can help us better understand the consumer appetite for reusable packaging — and provide insights into how reuse should move forward.
European consumers have more experience, but they also face barriers
Recent research shows a growing number of European consumers are increasingly familiar and even comfortable with reuse, but the sentiment is by no means universal.
A 2021 Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) report found 41 percent of consumers in the United Kingdom have used reusable packaging, with many (31 percent) having dabbled in refill at home and fewer (11 to 17 percent) having experience with refill or return on the go. Similarly, a 2022 Hubbub report found 64 percent of U.K. consumers were open to borrowing a reusable cup, and 39 percent would do so at a frequently visited cafe.
These numbers are promising, but they’re not the slam dunk brands might be looking for. European consumers still have their doubts. For instance, the IGD study (with research performed during the thick of the pandemic) found hygiene concerns were a barrier for in-store refill stations for over 50 percent of consumers. And 32 percent of the Hubbub respondents said they didn’t want to "go out of their way" to engage in reuse.
U.S. consumers believe in reuse, just like the rest of the world
Where do Americans stand on reuse? A 2021 World Economic Forum survey found that North Americans, along with global consumers in all other regions, believe the "most adoptable zero-waste lifestyle practice" is choosing products with reusable packaging. When it comes to refill, a 2022 Trivium report found that 74 percent of Americans are interested in buying products in refillable packaging.
Of course, the intention-action gap is real, and just because U.S. consumers have a desire to engage with reuse doesn’t mean they will. One reason is that most consumers also want reusable products to be less expensive and more convenient than disposables. This is a key insight that some brands seem to have missed: Many consumers aren’t engaging with reuse solely for sustainability reasons.
The pitfalls of pilot programs
To better gauge consumers’ "readiness" to buy reusables, brands have gone all in on pilots. For several years, pilots have been the strategy du jour for large companies. For example, a brand’s most "eco-friendly" line might experiment with selling soap in a refillable container.
With some of these pilots wrapping up, it’s time to dig into their findings. In the U.K., Tesco’s in-store trials with Loop concluded that "shared distribution, cleaning and refilling services for many different [businesses] could help deliver scale and cost-effectiveness more quickly than any single retailer can by going it alone." In the meantime, consumers engaged with Tesco’s prefill options (durable reusable packaging that has been "prefilled" with products) but struggled with the process of returning the packaging when empty and reclaiming their deposits.
Pilots are an effective way to test drive concepts and get valuable insights, but they can’t prove that reuse solutions will succeed or that consumers are ready.
Reuse won’t be easy until it’s everywhere
Consumers are unlikely to be satisfied with the reuse offerings being piloted today, and they will typically find them less appealing than the disposable status quo. And who can blame them? In the U.S., Loop was initially offered only in the Northeast, with steep container deposit amounts and limited product selection. Since then, it has moved into retail, but still requires consumers to hunt down reuse across the aisles and schlep empty containers back to the store. You can’t order everything on your list, have it delivered or return it to any location.
It’s not just Loop. Many brands’ dabblings in reuse have relied on cumbersome return processes and separate apps for payment. Some brands have even launched so-called refillable lines without the companion refill product, making for a truly cringe-worthy consumer experience.
If brands launch reuse in a limited capacity, with just one product line, one mode of return, one location or one retail partner, they are unlikely to impress consumers. Rather, their pilot post-mortem will probably determine, as others have found, that consumers wished the reusable option was simpler, cheaper and more convenient. Without the scaled solutions advocated by Tesco, consumers will struggle with a pilot’s limited scope or extra steps involved.
Giving consumers more of what they want
Does all this mean that reuse has no chance of succeeding? No. But pilots are typically not representative of the real world, and consumers expect to see "real" reuse.
What could this look like? It would start with companies expanding reuse so that it’s part of the main way consumers interact with their product, not a sideshow. Starbucks did this when it took a "100 percent reusables" approach to a cafe at its headquarters in Seattle: Reusable cups (BYO or available to borrow) were the only option, and employees didn’t have to fuss with deposits, apps or remembering to participate.
Consumers want reuse to match the experience they’re currently getting when shopping and dining, and that requires companies to set aside pilots and move into scaled solutions. When that happens, I believe we’ll see that consumers are more than ready. I believe they’re eager to engage with reusable systems that are widely available, integrated and cost-effective.
Perhaps in the U.S., it’s time to apply one of our all-American maxims to reuse: Let’s "go big or go home."