Reuse is increasingly becoming one of the most important ways to fight against packaging waste. It is a simple yet powerful concept: rather than discarding packaging after a single use, we design packaging that can be used again and again. This not only reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and oceans, but also conserves valuable resources and energy otherwise expended on producing new packaging. One pioneering group in this field is R3PACK, a European project dedicated to revolutionising packaging by developing innovative solutions for plastic substitution and reuse schemes. In this article we will delve into the world of reuse, explore how it can be implemented, and understand R3PACK's role in making that world become a reality.
What does 'reuse' mean?
The Ellen MacArthur foundation has tackled the definition of reuse through four different models:
· Refill on the Go
· Refill at Home
· Return on the Go
· Return at Home
All four models have their specific challenges to overcome, but one common goal: reducing single-use plastic packaging. Before getting to the meat of the matter, we need to take a little step back. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a charity which works with businesses, academia, policymakers, and institutions to help the transition to a circular economy. The core idea is creating a system where materials never become waste. Unfortunately, in our daily lives, packaging is often immediately discarded after purchasing an item… and that is the exact reason for the existence of R3PACK: a European project aiming at Reducing, Reusing, and Rethinking packaging by developing sustainable fibre-based and plastic-free technologies, and fostering reuse schemes.
How do we reduce the amount of plastic pollution due to packaging?
The underlying assumption of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is that there are two primary approaches to reducing packaging: either refilling or returning the container to have it reused for the same purpose. There are likewise two different ways to proceed, by either to picking up the empty packaging at the consumer’s home, or having the consumer bring it back “on the go” at a store or another designated drop-off point.
The 4 different Models
Still unclear what reuse is? Here are some examples to illustrate each model: imagine that you are in a supermarket.
Refill on the Go : you bring the container of your choice or choose the ones available at the store. You then fill it up with the selected product (the quantity being up to you), and you pay per its weight. Upon consuming the product, you go back to the store to get the container refilled as many times as you like. This is a popular practice for dry foods such as nuts, rice, and pasta.
Refill at Home : the model involves a 'mother pack' and a 'sister pack'. The sister pack is a lighter version in terms of materials than the mother pack, and is used to fill the mother pack, thereby reducing its environmental impact. The model is commonly used for cleaning products such as washing liquids that can be bought in light/flexible packaging at a store to then be transferred into a rigid container.
Return from Home : the model is particularly used for heavy items such as beverages in e-commerce. You buy or order a product, once the crate of bottles or single bottle is empty, a pick-up service takes them back from your home to have them washed, refilled with the same type of product, and put back onto the market.
Return on the Go : you purchase a product in a reusable container. Once you have consumed it, you return the empty packaging to the store you bought it from or any designated drop-off point. The packaging is then cleaned, refilled, and sent back to a store for sale.
As you will have realised, there is no 'silver bullet' as each model complements each other and fits with different kinds of products and types of use.
R3PACK’s approach to reuse
At R3PACK, our primary focus is cutting down the use of plastic packaging in the food sector, which means dealing with a broad variety of products, from yoghurts to crisps to juice. In general, “Refill or Return on the Go” are best suited to these food products. However, each type of food has its specificities which will influence which reuse model to pick.
For instance, French law excludes all dairy products (such as yoghurts) from the national refill targets to anticipate any sanitary risks. For other products “Refill on the Go” is not suitable Ie of their nature: sensitive to UV light, too brittle, or too rapidly perishable to be sold in bulk. Despite the popularity of I, which is already partly anchored in consumer habits, the model is mainly used for dry products. Whereas R3PACK mainly handles pre-packaged foods such as prepared salads, woks, or sensitive items such as milk and yoghurt. Adopting the latter involves tremendous changes in the value chain, particularly the conditioning in very large containers.
This is why we opted for the "Return on the Go" model, more suitable for diverse food products' complexity.
The "Return on the Go" model implies an individual packaging per food item, which makes it more adaptable to the specificities of a product. Thus, it can be deployed more widely and handle larger volumes, which in turn increases the positive impact of the model on the environment.
One challenge: rethink the current operational model
As a matter fact this model has been widely used until the last century, but progressively decreased as the globalisation spread. Some remnants of that time can still be seen today, for example the management of water bottles in French restaurants, or the glass bottle management in Germany.
However, 'widely applicable' does not mean easy to implement and 'formerly used' does not mean simple to revive. And in this regard one aspect is critical: the operational loop.
Food manufacturers and retailers currently operate their system in a linear way, which ends with a consumer’s purchase. Switching to a circular process implies reshaping it entirely by:
Setting up drop off points for customers to return their reusable packaging,
Organising a collection system from the drop-off points to washing centres (and 'massification' hubs in between when necessary),
Washing all dirty packaging at an industrial facility,
Sending the cleaned packaging back to the food manufacturers
Usually neither supermarkets nor the production sites are equipped to wash their packaging, requiring the involvement of new stakeholders. Additionally, the environmental value of the Return on the Go system relies on the proximity of the network to limit transport distance (and therefore carbon emissions).
Ultimately, the model will be validated based on consumers' willingness to change their habits. National communication to educate consumers about the benefits of reuse in mitigating single-use plastic packaging will be key in the transition towards new consumption modes.
R3PACK is choosing to develop “Return on the Go” because of its scale-up potential, both geographically and sector-wise, as the project aims to contribute to the fast uptake of reusable solutions at the European-level. Nevertheless, other reuse models remain interesting and are complementary solutions to reach Europe’s broader reuse targets.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement No 101060806.