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Kitty Thompson: How to make reusable packaging mainstream

Kitty Thompson, CEN's Nature Programme Manager

To unlock the environmental and economic benefits of reusable packaging, it must be adopted at scale. To do that, governments must support the businesses going against the packaging status quo to make reuse as easy as possible.

Refillable business models can take many forms, with varying degrees of responsibility placed on the consumer to change their behaviour. But the core element underlying them all is that, rather than being thrown away, the packaging can be used again and again.

Reusable packaging stays in the economy for much longer than the traditional model allows for. At scale, this can save resources, money and energy compared with producing and purchasing a never ending supply of disposable packaging. Reusability, in short, can be a cost saving for businesses and a material saving for the environment.

A common complaint about existing refillable packaging models is that they are inconvenient. Too often it is beholden on the consumer to remember their reusable containers and requires them to significantly change their behaviour in the process. But this need not be the case.

Good behavioural interventions meet consumers where they are. In the case of packaging, we have become accustomed to a more convenient consumer culture and reuse need not be any different. “Prefill” models are one way to remedy this.

This model enables consumers to purchase an item as usual in store or online and then deposit the empty packaging, whether that be handing the container back to your delivery driver when your next order arrives, leaving it to be collected at your door, or returning to a location in store.

Prefilled packaging puts more of the onus on businesses to change their operations by collecting the used packaging and preparing it to be used again. Many businesses, including British behemoths like Tesco, have willingly explored this.

There is also the opportunity to outsource the retailer’s burden in the form of operational logistics as a service. Start ups such as Again and CauliBox provide great examples of how this could be done. This ingenuity can create new jobs and industries in the process.

To maximise the benefits of reusable packaging, it must be developed at scale. This will help to drive the price down, making it a cost effective option for consumers and businesses alike.

One thing stands in the way. There is an entrenched belief among policymakers and consumers that recycling is king. This is reflected in individual actions and our policy landscape and is proving difficult to unpick.

While recycling can and will help us to manage our resources, it is not the only or necessarily best option. This is reflected in the waste hierarchy - a framework to guide and rank waste management decisions - which places reuse above recycling. Despite the government committing to the hierarchy, it is not reflected in our packaging policies.

Ensuring that incentives correspond with the waste hierarchy is key. Quick fixes like banning individual plastic items will not do this; it simply shifts the problem away from single-use plastic to other materials. It also risks reinforcing the belief that plastic is the problem, not disposability more broadly.

Other policies such as the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for packaging are missing a trick by being designed to drive recycling, rather than greater resource efficiency. Accounting for reuse in this scheme is a vital first step to ensure reusable packaging is at least treated fairly, and ideally favourably.

While refill shops are popping up across the country, reusable packaging is far from mainstream. This World Refill Day, it is time to consider what more can be done to turn reusable packaging from an inconvenience into the go-to packaging choice.


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