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‘It just didn’t work’: how businesses are struggling with re-useable packaging
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‘It just didn’t work’: how businesses are struggling with re-useable packaging

For several months last year, patrons of a Seattle coffee shop called Tailwind Cafe had the option of ordering their americanos and lattes in a returnable metal to-go cup. They could borrow one from Tailwind, go on their way and then at some point – perhaps a few hours later, perhaps on another day that week – return it to the shop, which would clean it and refill it for the next person. If the cup wasn’t returned within 14 days, the customer would be charged a $15 deposit, although even that was ultimately refundable if the cup was returned by the end of 45 days.

But the system quickly ran into trouble. It was “overwhelming” trying to explain the return system to every interested customer, said Tailwind’s head chef, Kayla Tekautz. Many were hesitant to participate after learning that they could only return the cups to Tailwind or the other drop-off location, six miles away. Plus, Tailwind’s QR code reader kept malfunctioning, requiring repeated visits from a mechanic. At the end of last summer, Tailwind quietly ended the scheme. “It just didn’t work,” Tekautz said.

In an effort to reduce consumption of single-use plastic, the city of Seattle has spent the past several years encouraging local businesses to offer reusable cups, dishes, utensils and packaging. Concertgoers at the Paramount theatre and attenders of the Northwest Folklife festival, for example, can now order their drinks in reusable polypropylene cups. Since 2022, students at the University of Washington have been able to check out bright green reusable food containers from a company called Ozzi.

These schemes are helping Seattle avoid single-use plastic and move towards a “waste-free future,” according to the city’s reuse website. It’s a target that is being pursued by many American cities, and at the global level too. Disposable plastic foodware and packaging, which accounts for nearly 40% of all plastic production, can only be phased out if there are robust, efficient reuse systems to replace them.

But some businesses, like Tailwind, have struggled to get reusable containers off the ground, often because of the small scale and disconnected nature of reuse schemes. Instead of pooling resources and employing just one or two large cleaning and logistics services, businesses have to choose between several competing initiatives – or in some cases have created and run their own programmes. The result is a slew of incompatible containers.

Having so many companies creating their own designs and logistics can be expensive, causing them to miss out on economies of scale that could make reuse more affordable and easily adoptable. According to Ashima Sukhdev, a policy adviser for the city of Seattle, she should be able to “pick up a coffee from my local cafe and then drop it off in the lobby of my office building. Or drop it off at the library, or at a bus stop.”

But what Sukhdev is describing would represent a highly unusual level of coordination across company lines and require big changes from consumers, who have been trained for 70 years to expect disposability in just about every aspect of daily life.

According to a recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), a nonprofit organisation that advocates for a “circular economy” that conserves resources, even companies that have pledged to dramatically scale down their use of plastics have only replaced 2% or less of their single-use containers with reusables. “To realise the full benefits of return systems, a fundamentally new approach is required,” the authors concluded.

EMF has identified four broad categories of reuse systems: refill on the go, when consumers bring their own reusable containers to grocery stores and coffee shops; refill at home, where consumers own their own reusable containers and order refills in the mail; return on the go, where businesses own containers and let consumers borrow them; and return from home, where businesses own the reusable containers, pick them up and wash them (like old-fashioned milk deliverers).

The EMF report focuses on the “return on the go” category and argues that three things need to happen to make reuse mainstream: companies must achieve high return rates; share infrastructure for washing, collecting, sorting and delivery in order to achieve economies of scale; and utilise standardised reusable containers. The third pillar makes the other two much easier to achieve.

Pat Kaufman, the manager of Seattle Public Utilities’ composting, recycling, and reuse programme, is currently working with a nonprofit called PR3, an organisation seeking to create those standards. Some of the questions they are facing are: what will standardised reusable packaging systems look like, and what will it take to get companies, and consumers, to adopt them?

They have spent the past four years drafting standards for reuse systems, with a particular focus on container design, and they are hoping to eventually certify the world’s first reuse standards under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This would lend legitimacy to the PR3 proposals, as the ISO maintains one of the world’s most widely accepted catalogues of standards. Others within its portfolio cover everything from food safety to the manufacturing of medical devices, and have been voluntarily adopted by many large companies and government bodies. PR3 released a draft of its standards last year and it has been updating them since then.

So, what makes a good reusable container system? It’s complicated. Containers have to hold up under the stresses of logistics and transportation. They have to be relatively inexpensive. Perhaps most intangibly, they have to seem reusable, so customers don’t accidentally throw them out with the rubbish.

In designing draft standards, PR3 has often had to make educated predictions about which ones consumers will respond to. And those predictions can have far-reaching implications. If you assume customers will frequently lose or forget to return their containers, for example, then it probably won’t make sense to design thick containers that are capable of withstanding hundreds of uses.

“In the real world, return rates vary wildly,” said Claudette Juska, PR3’s technical director and one of its co-founders. “You don’t want to design a container for 400 uses if it’s only going to be used four times.” The most recent version of PR3’s standards says containers must be designed to withstand at least 20 uses and reused in practice at least 10 times.

On the other hand, it may be counterproductive to design containers with the expectation that they won’t be returned. According to Stuart Chidley, a co-founder of a reusable packaging company called Reposit, containers that look and feel cheap could actually cause low return rates, since people might be more careless with them. His philosophy is to use features such as colour, weight and shape to communicate containers’ reusability, making it less plausible that people will confuse them for disposables.

Rather than calling for specific container shapes and sizes, PR3 has drafted a few broad requirements: that containers be designed to “optimise durability”, and that they follow “best practices for recyclability.” They must comply with existing food safety regulations. Optionally, companies may label products with a universal symbol, similar to the ubiquitous “chasing arrows” used to indicate recyclability. Such a symbol doesn’t yet exist for reuse, but PR3 has proposed one: a black, white or orange rose-like pictogram along with the word “reuse”.

More specific design elements are included only as recommendations. For instance, to make washing easier, PR3’s draft says reusable containers should have interior angles no smaller than 90 degrees, as well as “feet” to maximise airflow during drying. They also say containers should “nest” to save storage space and make transportation easier.

The approach aims to appease big businesses by allowing them to keep using containers that look and feel very different, so long as they conform to a set of broad requirements. “Product companies want that kind of autonomy,” Juska said.

An unopened Coca-Cola bottleView image in fullscreen

Coca-Cola, for example, sets itself apart with its iconic and patented hourglass-shaped Coke bottle. And beauty companies are notorious for differentiated packaging: the perfume aisle might have bottles shaped like everything from a high-heeled shoe to a kitten.

Some reuse advocates want to do away altogether with those unique container designs in order to enable sharing among different companies – a situation where packaging is considered “pooled” within a market. So instead of an extravagant diversity of perfume bottles, all fragrances might come in interchangeable cylindrical jars.

A small number of companies, particularly in Europe, already do this. For example, through a German programme called Mach Mehrweg Pool ((make a reuse pool), brands share a collection of identical glass jars that can be filled with different foods. When consumers return the empty containers to a supermarket, a logistics provider picks them up and brings them back to food producers for cleaning. Another organisation called the German Wells Cooperative runs a similar scheme for reusable soda and water bottles, counting more than 150 beverage makers as members.

There is already evidence that most companies are leaving money on the table by choosing not to pool their containers.

At least some intervention – perhaps regulation or financial incentives – is probably required to create conditions that are more favourable to reusables. A hands-off, market-led approach is what has led to today’s proliferation of throwaway plastics.

EMF’s modelling suggests that only reuse systems “built collaboratively from the outset” can reach cost parity with single-use. Exactly what that collaboration will look like, however, is unclear, since the kinds of government regulations that could help foster it might be incompatible with the United States’ free-market ethos and antitrust laws. Internationally, some cities and countries have done more than the US to promote reuse, but none have gone as far as what EMF is suggesting.

  • This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Source: theguardian.com