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Many businesses ground to a halt at the start of the pandemic, but the market for disposable packaging is forecast to grow by 5.5 percent as the demand for single-use plastics has soared. Before COVID-19, the market was already projected to grow by 4 percent per year until 2027. To put the market in perspective: As a result of all the things we buy and discard, the average person in the United Kingdom, for instance, is responsible for 99 kilograms of plastic waste each year.

When people talk about reducing plastic waste, they tend to have a narrow picture of the possibilities, like using reusable bottles or shopping bags. More often than not, the focus is on what consumers can do. But to prevent tons of plastic being made just to be thrown away, businesses need to ensure people can reuse and refill all their packages and products, from ready meals and soft drinks to shampoo and eyeliner. This would mean a system where people do not buy new disposable plastic containers, but have these collected by retailers and manufacturers to be refilled and then returned to the shop floor. 

For many products, the same container would be reused hundreds of times, but this is not something customers can make happen on their own – it requires manufacturers, retailers, and health-and-safety regulators working together.

Reverse supply chains

Currently, businesses take raw materials, make a product, and distribute it to their customers in single-use packaging that is then discarded. In a circular system where the plastic is reused, businesses would also have to collect, clean, store, refill, and redistribute that packaging. All these steps cost money and create new risks – and concerns – for the business, including on the health and safety front. 

Health and safety is one of the biggest concerns for retailers of food, drinks and cosmetics. In a linear supply chain, compliance with regulators is relatively simple. Each product package, whether it is a shampoo bottle or a ready-made meal tray, has to have a unique label in case there is a bad batch that must be recalled due to an unlabeled allergen or bacterial contamination. Packaging can be marked once when it is filled and then discarded. But for a circular economy, there needs to be a way to relabel different batches of products distributed in the same container. 

Skincare company Nivea launched a refill station for shower gel in Hamburg, Germany in 2020. Customers can return their shampoo bottle, refill it in the shop, and a machine prints out a sticker to identify the product batch. This still assumes customers will do much of the work, including adding and removing stickers to ensure their reusable product meets health and safety requirements; ensuring that everyone can easily reuse products will require more elegant solutions. 

The first step is for businesses to track their packaging with a digital product passport. This is essentially a unique QR code that can be scanned at key points on the product’s journey – when it is returned to the shop, when it is cleaned and refilled by the manufacturer at a warehouse, and when it is returned to a shop or ordered online. The packaging will be scanned hundreds of times, allowing businesses to show that they are complying with health-and-safety standards. And each package can be identified and recalled if there are any contaminated batches of shampoo or curry.

New business models

Digital product passports can also help businesses figure out if reusable packaging is profitable. Calculating the cost of a single-use package is simple. A cardboard takeaway box may cost 20 cents to make and that money goes into the cost of the takeaway meal. With reusable packaging, businesses could recoup the costs and even save money if the meal packaging is reused and refilled enough times. 

But reusable packaging will probably cost more per unit because it will need to be made more durable. Reusable takeaway containers could cost 25 times more than disposable ones to make. But this does not mean that the business will recoup the full cost and begin to make a profit if the container is returned and refilled 25 times. There are additional costs – such as labor and energy – that are required to collect, store, clean, and refill the packaging. 

While these things can be calculated to determine the cost per use of a reusable package, businesses will not know the actual price unless they have a way to track their package and find out the return rate. And return rates will vary widely depending on the product, how easy it is to return the package, and even cultural norms. Without investment in tracking, there are very few case studies to turn to.

Reusable packaging presents an array of new risks for businesses. How do you make packaging that can be frozen, dropped and then heated to 200°C in an oven and confidently claim that it can be used 400 times and still be of the same specification as when it was first produced? How can you set up a reverse supply chain so that at least 50 percent of your shampoo bottles are returned and refilled 400 times? Because they allow businesses to track how many times different types of packaging can be reused and how often people will return them, digital product passports are the first step to solving both of these challenges. Now businesses need to put these ideas into practice.

Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs is a Senior Research Associate in Sustainability at Lancaster University. (This article was initially published by The Conversation)