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Reusable packaging revolution is close - experts say

Credit: James Wakibia

Revolution Plastics Institute

5 min read Partner content

Global plastics treaty talks this week should aim for mass adoption of reuse systems to cut plastic pollution.

A detailed plan to transform product packaging and significantly cut plastic production and pollution has been developed by researchers.

The study comes as government representatives meet in Paris to negotiate a legally binding global plastics treaty with a mandate to end plastic pollution. 

The research, published today by the University of Portsmouth’s Global Plastics Policy Centre, commissioned by the Break Free From Plastic movement, consolidates 320 articles and papers, plus 55 new interviews with reuse experts from around the world [1], to suggest a universal definition of reuse systems and, for the first time, assess how all nations can move away from throw-away packaging.

Packaging is responsible for 40% of all plastic in the EU, and plastic packaging waste is set to grow by 46% by 2030, according to the European Commission. The 10 most commonly found single-use plastic items on European beaches, alongside fishing gear, represent 70% of all marine litter in the EU, it says. Reuse systems could cut plastic pollution by 30 percent by 2040.

The study found: 

  • A phased approach is needed to deliver economy-wide change from single-use to reusable packaging systems that can significantly reduce impacts on our climate, environment, biodiversity and health. Many reuse systems are already developed, proven and scalable. Fundamental to true reuse systems is packaging on loan to consumers that is returned multiple times until a sustainability ‘breakeven point’ is achieved.
  • The upcoming global plastic treaty, being developed in Paris this week, is seen as a major opportunity for policymakers to support the upscaling of reuse systems, limit virgin plastic production, set standards and boost infrastructure. Virgin plastic reduction targets are 25 years behind carbon emissions targets, the reuse experts interviewed said.
  • Next generation packaging should mostly be standardised, stackable and electronically tagged. It must be durable, lightweight, washable and non-toxic, but no one material is best suited to all situations.
  • The path to mass adoption of reuse systems should roll out in four phases, the authors say, starting with large venues such as sports arenas and music festivals, which have breakthrough potential to build public acceptance, a challenge identified by three quarters (74%) of the reuse experts interviewed.
  • Delivery firms will have a major role in the return and reuse economy, collecting used packaging while making deliveries.

What we need now is a clear vision for reuse and the right support to mainstream it.

Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the University of Portsmouth

The study envisages a world where all packaging is chipped or tagged and can be dropped into smart bins, cleaned and pooled at centralised ‘hubs’ before being delivered back to factories and retailers. Reuse systems will vary by sector, but the researchers think the transition will likely occur first in cities, where infrastructure is more adaptable. Widespread change will take time, the researchers concede, but closed environments like schools, hospitals, events and food courts are relatively easy to shift to zero waste packaging, as is the drinks sector, where some reuse brands already achieve high return rates. Harder will be the fast food sector where packaging often ends up scattered. ‘Rentable packaging’ could help, where customers order through apps and are charged a small fee if they do not return the packaging.

Most (82%) experts interviewed worry about higher costs and infrastructure change of reusable packaging, while many are also concerned about hygiene and loss of brand identity. Reuse supporters interviewed strongly criticise governments for lacking vision and over-investing in recycling and incineration, which are often barriers to reuse.

Director of the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the University of Portsmouth, Professor Steve Fletcher, said: “This study is a significant evidence based global assessment of how we can swap wasteful single use packaging for reuse systems. It shows that there is no one-size-fits-all packaging material or system for reuse, but we know that it has to fit seamlessly into people’s lives and that has huge untapped potential to end plastic pollution. What we need now is a clear vision for reuse and the right support to mainstream it.”

The scourge of single-use packaging continues to grow at a pace beyond the capacities of existing waste management systems.

Von Hernandez , Break Free From Plastic global coordinator

Break Free From Plastic global coordinator Von Hernandez said: “The scourge of single-use packaging continues to grow at a pace beyond the capacities of existing waste management systems. Prevention is key; ramping up reuse systems is the most sensible approach to replacing single use plastics and dramatically cut plastic production. The plastics treaty discussions this week must lay the groundwork for this transformation.”

Tiza Mafira, Executive Director Gerakan Indonesia Diet Kantong Plastik, said: “It is clear that reuse is much more than simply packaging, it is a system that needs all players in a global supply chain to take part. That’s why reuse needs to be right at the heart of the plastic treaty discussions this week, so that the operational nuts and bolts can be agreed and reuse can thrive and scale.” 

The European Commission recently announced fresh laws against the “constantly growing source of waste” from packaging and a “steep decline” in reuse rates, promising support for reuse systems. Boosting reuse could create more than 600,000 jobs by 2030, it says. Progress in Europe could influence the global treaty talks, campaigners say.

This report is available here: https://plasticspolicy.port.ac.uk/research/making-reuse-reality and https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/reuse  

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