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Food Packaging Reuse: Consumer Understanding and Barriers to Adoption

What is food packaging reuse?

The typical European citizen generates an estimated 180 kilograms of packaging waste annually, equivalent to 0.5 kilograms of packaging waste each day. Notably, a significant proportion of this packaging waste originates from food packaging. Most food packaging found in stores is single-use, which means that once the product is consumed, the packaging is discarded, and in the best-case scenario, it is recycled. However, instances of reusing the same packaging multiple times are relatively scarce. In the past, consumers used to visit their local stores to refill containers with grains or return empty bottles for reuse.

Nonetheless, the demand for convenience and the industrialisation of food production led to a surge in single-use packaging, gradually supplanting the practice of reuse.

The European Union (EU) has been proactive in underscoring the necessity of reducing single-use packaging. One promising avenue is the concept of food packaging reuse.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there are four primary business models for implementing food packaging reuse schemes

1.Refill at Home: Under this scheme, users replenish their reusable containers at home, often facilitated by subscription-based refill services. 

2.Refill on the Go: Users have the option to refill their reusable containers outside their homes, typically at in-store dispensing systems. 

3.Return from Home: This approach involves a pick-up service collecting packaging waste from users' residences, often operated by logistics companies. 

4.Return on the Go: Users can return packaging waste at designated locations, such as stores or drop-off points, which may include deposit return machines or mailboxes. 

These diverse reuse schemes present promising strategies for mitigating the environmental impact of single-use food packaging and align with the EU objectives to promote sustainable packaging practices. 

What do consumers understand about food packaging reuse and what are their preferences ? 

Researchers from the MAPP Centre( at Aarhus University in Denmark conducted a survey in April 2023, querying approximately 1,800 consumers inFrance and Belgium about theircomprehension of food packaging reuse. 

The survey constituted part of the Horizon Europe project, R3PACK, with the overarching goal of uncovering effective strategies for implementing food packagingreuse schemes.

The survey findings revealed that 7 out of 10 consumers were familiar with the concept of food packaging reuse. However,a considerably smaller proportion (almost 1 out of 3) demonstrated awareness of specific food packaging reuse schemes. 

When respondents were questioned about their associations with food packaging reuse (Fig. 2), the majority connected it withsustainability,the environment, and recycling. Some consumers also linked it with practicality, emphasising a perceived barrier that requires overcoming: individuals must step out of their comfort zones. 

Subsequent studies indicated that adopting reusable packaging necessitates a shift in consumer habits.

Among the respondents, “Return-on-the-Go” solutions emerged as the most preferred, while “Return-from-Home”solutions were the least favoured (Fig. 3). 

Despite the assumption that at-homesolutions might entail less effort, this preference suggests that consumers desire a more active role in combating packaging waste.

Another noteworthy discovery from thesurvey was that consumers anticipatedpaying less for products in reusablepackaging. For instance, in the “Return-on-the-Go” scheme, respondents expressedan expectation of a roughly 10% reductionin cost. This indicates that consumers view food packaging reuse as an opportunity, with an expectation that products inreusable packaging should cost less due to the added value of the packaging itself.

Respondents were further prompted to assess the importance of various factors influencing their decision to purchase food products in reusable packaging. Factors related to the properties of food packaging, such as quality, functionality, and safety, scored highest in importance. 

In contrast, considerations like deposit and cash returns, as well as breaking habits, were deemed less significant. 

What are the drivers of consumer adoption of food packaging reuse? 

The same group of researchers conducted a comprehensive review of academic literature exploring the drivers of adoption for food packaging reuse. The findings underscored that the adoption of food packaging reuse schemes is contingent upon three primary factors:(1) individual characteristics; (2) packaging and product factors, and; (3) scheme design. 

Individual characteristics: 

Individuals who exhibit environmental consciousness, awareness of food packaging reuse, and knowledge regarding the environmental impact of food packaging are more inclined to harbour positive attitudes and adopt food packaging reuse schemes. Notably, consumers who cannot differentiate between reuse and recycling exhibit a diminished valuation of food packaging reuse. Consequently, the initial step should involve elevating consumer awareness about food packaging reuse. 

Packaging and product factors:

Echoing the survey results, consumers express concerns about hygiene, safety, and quality. A successful scheme must offer assurances to customers regarding these concerns. Additionally, it is essential to recognise that packaging reuse is not universally applicable to all products and types of packaging. For instance, glass bottles are more amenable to reuse than yogurt cups. Products leaving residues on packaging may necessitate user washing.

Scheme design:

The efficacy of any system hinges on its design. Factors such as deposits can provide economic incentives crucial for motivating specific consumer segments. Similarly, the choice of return locations may impact both convenience and the effort consumers are willing to invest in engaging with a scheme.

Beyond these factors, the review identified additional influential factors acting as multipliers: communication and market readiness. The communication strategies employed can significantly influence consumer engagement, emphasising the need for adaptable approaches rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Regarding market readiness, some markets may already be mature, featuring similar existing systems (e.g., bottle returns).

Moreover, social norms may play a pivotal role, with countries surpassing a tipping point being more likely to engage a larger consumer base. 

How to motivate consumer adoption of food packaging reuse ? 

As mentioned earlier, for a reuse scheme to succeed, we must overcome barriers related to packaging and system design. Additionally, it is crucial to encourage consumers to take part in the reuse scheme. 

What steps should be taken? 

Firstly, there is a need to raise consumer awareness about reuse. Emphasising communication strategies that clarify the difference between reuse and recycling, as well as highlighting the benefits of reuse over single-use packaging, is essential. 

Secondly, it is important to offer incentives to boost consumer participation in the scheme. Economic incentives, like using deposit schemes, can play a key role. However, it is equally vital to implement retail strategies that encourage informed food choices and favour products in reusable packaging. Transparent pricing strategies, such as separating product prices for single-use and reused packaging, can be effective. Additionally, since it may be challenging to discern between reused and single-use packaging (i.e., some people may not be able to tell the difference), a label can aid in this transition. 

Thirdly, adopting effective communication strategies is central to motivating consumers to engage in reuse schemes, both in purchasing products and returning reused packaging. 

Understanding the role that message framing can have is crucial, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that emphasising gains over losses increases engagement in such schemes. 

Furthermore, grasping the role of social norms and identifying the tipping point (i.e., the stage at which the social cost of embracing a new behaviour reverses) can support thistransition. 

All these considerations are taken into account in the R3PACK project, where the research team is actively working on recommendations to better motivate consumers to participate in food packaging reuse. 

So, the next time you interact with food packaging, think about the environmental and economic benefits of packaging reuse. 

What factors would motivate you to engage in a food packaging scheme? 

For more information: 

Prof. Polymeros Chrysochou 

MAPP Centre, Aarhus University 

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement No 101060806.


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