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Making Reuse a Reality: A systems approach to tackling single-use plastic pollution

Environmental and economic arguments for reuse

Too often conflated with recycling, reuse involves multiple circulations of reusable packaging, where outlets provide customers with packaging on a loan basis, before it is returned for cleaning and reuse. It is environmentally beneficial: plastic production is reduced overall when reuse systems are established. Reuse also makes economic sense, with the projected net benefit across Europe amounting to €1.8 trillion by 2030. 

For reuse to work, the ‘sustainability breakeven point’ is crucial, balancing the raw materials required for the container with the number of reuses necessary to make it environmentally better than its single-use equivalent.

This isn’t a new concept – doorstep glass-bottled milk delivery is a familiar example. Despite the potential benefits of reuse, consumer packaging still comprises predominantly single-use plastics, with 36% of all solid waste stemming from single-use packaging. As things stand, in Europe alone 14.38 million tons of single-use beverage materials and 60 billion units of packaging are consumed each year.  Other solutions, such as substituting existing materials with compostable packaging actually have worse environmental impacts, and so reuse must now take centre-stage. 


Successful reuse systems

In the UK reuse is highly localised, usually occurring in individual households or single-businesses. In mainland Europe re-use is increasingly widespread. In citywide schemes such as that of Tubingen, Germany, the reuse strategy is a combination of subsidies, infrastructure, taxes and consumers’ rights to use reusable containers. In the Netherlands, disposables are now prohibited at festivals, and charges now apply for single-use packaging sold at certain venues such as train stations. Across Europe, suppliers of reusable packaging are now supplying leading food-delivery companies such as Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber eats.


While these examples highlight the potential for scaling-up re-use, achieving this requires changes to an infrastructure that is currently optimised for recycling. It is likely that the transition from single-use to reusable plastics would have high up-front costs, which would only be recouped up to three years after the transition. Businesses will also need to consider the impact on consumer behaviour.


The future of reuse: regulation, accountability and technology

One way to incentivise re-use is through regulation. When levies and taxes are accounted for, overall costs for reusable packaging are favourable. The United Nations Environment Assembly’s Global Plastics Treaty negotiations represent progress. At the May 2023 meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, reuse featured more prominently as a solution to plastics pollution in its options paper, with proposed obligations focusing on product design and  a “reduce, reuse and repair of plastic products” ethos – distinct from recycling. 

In a step towards increased accountability the World Economic Forum (WEF) has led an initiative to chart companies’ progress with reuse across their portfolios using agreed metrics. Likewise, Upstream’s ‘Chart Reuse’ analytics tool supports companies in evaluating their reuse progress and the Netherlands Institute of Sustainable Packaging has a way to calculate emissions connected to reuse processes, so a full environmental comparison with single-use plastics is feasible.

Transnational companies such as Unilever and Coca-Cola now claim to set their own reuse targets, which the WEF says are working ‘in parallel’ with the European Union’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, which includes some mandatory measures. However, both have been heavily criticised by Greenpeace for lack of ambition and slow progress, suggesting that their PR campaigns are mostly greenwash.


Celebrate World Refill Day

While some businesses are slow to act, individuals can adopt reuse-friendly consumer habits now. 

Refill’s mobile phone app connects users to over 330,000 Refill stations globally, and promotes new, user-initiated reuse schemes, 420 of which are in the UK, with others in countries as far apart as Japan and Ecuador. Refill estimates that its 400,000 users have already avoided 100 million pieces of plastic being wasted. 

World Refill Day is 16th June 2024, so why not download the Refill app and join the campaign?!



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For more information contact: info@scarabtrust.org.uk


Images:

Sustainability breakeven point - Table University of Portsmouth (ST ref: 1166)

zero waste store by Wix (ST ref: 1304)

greenpeace banner global plastics treaty  - Image by Greenpeace (ST ref: 1155)


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