unPACKED with Packaging World Podcast: 10 Billion Reasons to Embrace Reusable Packaging

Listen to the unPACKed with Packaging World podcast as Anne Marie Mohan outlines emerging frameworks to make implementing reusable packaging easier for OEMs, CPGs and consumers.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation indicates that converting just 20 percent of global plastic packaging into reuse models is a $10 billion business opportunity that benefits customers and represents a crucial element in the quest to eliminate packaging waste and pollution. Senior Editor Anne Marie Mohan makes her UnPACKed with Packaging World debut to offer reasons reusable packaging hasn’t caught on quicker and outlines emerging frameworks to make implementing reusable packaging easier for OEMs, CPGs and consumers.

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   Read the full transcript below

Sean Riley:  

Welcome to the podcast, Anne Marie.

Anne Marie Mohan:

Hi Sean. Thanks so much for having me.

Sean:

This is actually your first time on the pod, but you've been covering everything to do with packaging as a Senior Editor for Packaging World for a decade, at least. We've done a bunch of podcasts around sustainability, and I know you've covered the topic probably since it kind of emerged as a buzzword back in the guess, like the early 2000s. And I guess the topic that we would love to get more insight on is reusable packaging. We hear the term thrown around a lot. I've read stories you've written and viewed  some of your great take five videos online, where you've talked about sustainability and reusable packaging. You’re someone that can really give us an idea on where reusable packaging fits into a sustainable packaging strategy. So where does it fit into with the reusable packaging strategy?

 

Anne Marie:

So I guess the best way to start out is to really explain the environmental protection agency's waste management strategy for non-hazardous materials. So if you picture an inverted triangle, they go from the most preferred strategy to the least preferred and the most preferred strategy for handling non-hazardous materials is the source reduction and reuse of materials. Then following that would be recycling and composting, after that would be energy recovery and the least preferred method would be the treatment and disposal of these materials, which would involve for example, landfill.

In the early 2000s, when we really started talking about sustainable packaging, CPGs were reaching for the low-hanging fruit. So source reduction was a huge strategy. So for example, I remember an over the counter medication company that eliminated the secondary carton from its packaging. So I think they put an extended text label on their bottle instead. So as you can imagine, that saved a tremendous amount of material. And even if you think about taking a couple millimeters off a carton of mac and cheese, when there are a million of these cartons being produced a year, that is a huge source reduction.

Then another strategy in the early days was biopolymers. Companies thought that this was going to be the silver bullet. This is what was going to reduce their dependence on petroleum-based plastics, but it soon became apparent that there were drawbacks to bioplastics as well, such as contamination of the recycling stream and one size didn't fit all. So they kind of pulled back on that. More recently, we've seen the emphasis on recycling, including investment in recycling infrastructure, new chemical, and alternative recycling technologies and consumer education.

But during this entire time, reuse, which is one of the most preferred methods was really overlooked. We did have systems such as the one in Germany where they have plastic and glass bottles for beverages that are reusable. In fact, 82% of their beer bottles, which equates to 2 million bottles, are reusable. But for the most part, we haven't seen a lot of them. And where there has been reuse, really these packages were designed for reuse. So it was more greenwashing. I would imagine you could use any kind of jar for reuse, but it really wasn't designed for that. So we really haven't had a lot of the emphasis on this over the years.

 

Sean:

The interesting thing is while you're saying that, as I'm thinking, particularly when you were mentioned the beer bottles in Germany. I remember as a kid there was actually like a soda and beer distributor near us that that would take the bottles back with soda and then refill them. And it was cheaper when you then bought it the next time. Logical things like that with glass where you just clean it and put them back the product back in there, which obviously works in Germany. And it just seems like such a simple thing that, why haven't there been more development around reusables?

 

Anne Marie:

Well, I think part of it is the cost that's involved with reverse logistics system, for example, for reusable glass bottles. And that will really depend on the municipality and how they have their recycling system set up. But when we look at some of the other systems that were employed early on, or have been used such as like a liquid hand dispenser soap dispenser, where you refill it with a flexible pouch, they were messy, they were inconvenient and it really turned consumers off. And with reusables, if you really want to have an effective system, you have to look at a holistic systems approach, which involves a whole new way of thinking about packaging and about the supply chain. You have to develop both the primary package, as well as the refill. You have to create collection points if you're going to have the consumer return, the package. You have to figure out what the deposit will be, the reverse logistics as I mentioned, and then the cleaning of these packages, if you're going to reuse them. How are you going to clean them in a way that they're hygienic and sterilized for the next few weeks?

 

Sean:

Again, it's complex when you lay out like that, say as a lay person who's not involved in covering this like you do, or I covered it a bit back in the day. It just seems like it would be simpler than making more bottles, but I guess it would be, would it be cheaper? Is that what the reason was? It was just always cheaper to create more packaging versus reusing the stuff that they already had, or this is more like an opinion thing on your part, I guess?

 

Anne Marie:

Yeah, absolutely. It definitely is cheaper to produce a one-off and then have it disposed of than to try to create this system that really involves looking at the entire supply chain.

 

Sean:           

So that goes to your, where it just ends up sitting in a landfill and that's really not what they want from an EPA standpoint?

 

Anne Marie:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

 

Sean:

Okay then, what was it that prompted this innovation around reusables and in what categories are we seeing the most of this innovation?

 

Anne Marie:

I would really coin to a couple of things that occurred around 2016, 2017, that really prompted this renewed interest and efforts on behalf of the CPGs to make their packaging more sustainable, to reduce their environmental footprint. And the first would be the David Attenborough Blue Planet show that came out in November of 2017. This was really the first time that consumers saw the devastation that single use plastics are having on the marine environment and marine wildlife and the backlash was tremendous. Another thing 2016, 2017 brought us was a publication by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the new plastics economy. Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a global organization and they're committed to accelerating a transition to a circular economy. And one of their big focuses is packaging, creating a system where packaging never becomes waste by keeping those materials in use. So reusable packaging, or recyclable packaging, or making sure it's never waste versus what we've had in the past was a linear economy where you would take the package, take the material and make the package, and then it would become waste after use.

And then in 2018, they established what they called the new plastics economy, global commitment. And thus far, they've been able to get more than 500 signatories to this global commitment. And many of these signatories are some of the largest CPGs in the world. They include companies like L'Oreal, Mars, Nestle, Pepsico, and many others. And they've all committed to making 100% of their packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, which is a hugely ambitious goal. And they've also committed to regular reporting on their progress towards these goals. So they've committed to transparency around what they're doing.

So to help them in these efforts, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a publication called Reuse. And in that publication, they talked about different models that could be employed, different strategies of reasonable packaging. They talked about the benefits of reusable packaging beyond sustainability as well as the sustainable packaging benefits. And they provided a tremendous amount of case study examples of either pilots or programs that are in use at the moment.

To me though, what has really brought reuse to the forefront was the launch of the system from Loop or from Tom Szaky, who's the founder of TerraCycle. He introduced in 2019 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Loop Circular Shopping Platform. And this started, he said with an idea that he was throwing back and forth with Unilever in 2017 at this meeting and they were talking about the same thing as Ellen MacArthur, where they wanted to get at the root of packaging waste rather than creating packaging that then they have to manage through recycling or some other system. They wanted to create a system where it never becomes waste. And part of that strategy was to make reusable packaging as convenient to consumers as single use packaging. As I mentioned in the past, a lot of these systems were very messy, clumsy, inconvenient. So it had to be easy for the consumer to use the reusable packaging.

So with Loop, the package becomes a high value asset rather than being something that's viewed as waste. I just thought this was amazing that he was able to do this so quickly and engage so many high profile CPGs to get involved. But what they did is in pretty much any category you can think of, which included household cleaners, personal care, cosmetics, food, and beverage. These companies created reusable packaging that can be used up to a hundred times. And right now the system is primarily online and it is available all over the US as well as in other countries around the world where the consumer will go online, buy their products in this packaging, pay a deposit, and then they'll get these products in a reusable tote and that too was a big project to design this tote with UPS.

So they get the products and the tote, and when they're done using them, they go online and say, I need my empties to be picked up or picked up, brought back to a Loop facility where they clean and sterilize them so that they can be used again. The end goal is to have this available also in the retail environment. So here in the US, they have partnered with Walgreens and that's in the works. So eventually the consumer can go buy the product at Walgreens, return it to Walgreens. In France, they already are doing this in some stores in Europe with Carrefour. So it is moving very quickly.

 

Sean:

That's remarkable because that was my next question: Where exactly can you bring these things and take part in it, and then you filled that in before I even got a chance to ask it regarding Walgreens and Carrefour. And you've covered this extensively and Packaging World has, and there's a bunch of great videos for people listening that you guys put together with Tom about Loop. And it's fascinating how fast they brought it up to speed. So I guess with his model being one model, are there other different models for reusable packaging?

 

Anne Marie:

Absolutely. And the CPGs are trying them all. It's really fascinating. So in their Reuse publication, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation really created four strategies or outlined four strategies. And the first one would be refill at home. So that would be like your liquid hand soap container that you would refill. But there are a lot more sophisticated systems that are now being brought to market. And a lot of them are e-commerce systems, probably the most well-known would be companies such as Blueland, Truman's replenish where they sell you the bottle, and then you will order the refills and they have some pretty interesting concepts. There are pods, there are concentrated disks. There are clicking refills. The point of this system is that 80% of these products are water. So once you eliminate the water from the product, and you're only shipping the concentrates, you're saving quite a bit of transportation costs and the CO2 emissions that go along with that.

Another one that probably a lot of listeners are familiar with is Pepsi Co's soda stream system, where the system has a reusable bottle, you buy the flavor concentrates, and then you make your own carbonated drinks and seltzer water. So that's another example of refill at home. Another, or the second model would be refill on the go. And we've seen this a lot of times in grocery stores with bulk refills, maybe nuts or trail mix, things like that. The only problem with that is the hygiene concerns. So CPGs have come up with systems that are much more hygienic, digitally connected packages, where the consumer buys the package comes in, refills it, and then they're charged when this digitally connected package is scanned.

But another system that I would put on par with Loop in terms of the innovation is one that I learned about that started in Chile. And the reason this reusable packaging system started was because in low-income countries like Chile, the consumers end up paying what's called a poverty tax because they can't afford to buy a product in large quantity, they buy a smaller container product and they end up paying comparatively more for that packaging. So in Chile, they started a system where the consumer would bring in their own package and be able to buy just the quantity that they wanted in their own package and Algramo apparently means by the gram. So they would only pay for what they needed. And these included staples like rice and beans, and they would come from a vending type machine in like a local store.

Since then it's expanded it's to Algramo 2.0 where consumers have a package with an RFID chip, and it's connected to a system on their phone. And when they want a refill of product, they contact Algramo. Someone comes with an electric tricycle that has like dispensing machines on it. And they refill that way. And they have piloted that system with Unilever, with some laundry detergent and with Purina, with some pet food.

 

Sean:

That's fascinating. I've never heard of them coming to you and filling your stuff like that. That's a very interesting tidbit that I honestly had never heard of. Are there, I guess, are there any other additional reusable packaging models?

 

Anne Marie:

Yes, there are two others and one is Return from Home. So that would be your Loop online shopping platform where you use the product and UPS comes and picks up the package. There's another company called Plain Products and they do personal care products like shampoo and conditioner. They deliver the product in an aluminum container and then when the consumer is done with it, they put it back in the package that it came in and then they leave it on their doorstep for the postal carrier to pick up. And then the final one would be Return on the Go. So the user would return the package at a store or a drop-off point.

One really interesting example of this that just launched is an extension of Loop with Burger King in Canada, where they've actually created reusable packaging for their sandwiches and beverages. And the consumer just as with Loop in general, can order their product in this reusable packaging, pay a slight deposit and then return it at a collection point at a Burger King. So just some fascinating examples of pilots and programs that are in place at the moment that fall under all four of these models.

 

Sean:

Okay. I guess in listening to all these things, which again, sound wonderful and seem like things that we should be doing in terms of reusable packaging and hopefully at some point we'll get work to where I don't have to ask about this but I have to ask about it basically every podcast is, we end up coming out of a global pandemic, hopefully, and I have to think that something like reusables would be something impacted by that just from handling point of view. So could you give some insight into how that's affected it?

 

Anne Marie:

You know that's what I thought as well, because when we started with the lockdowns, we had companies like Starbucks and Dunkin saying that they would no longer be using reusable cups or would take them stores would no longer let consumers bring in reusable bags. So I contacted Tom Szaky to ask him his opinion on how COVID was affecting reusables and he told me that with Loop, not only had they not seen a drop in their consumers, but in fact Loop was growing. And part of that of course, was people's growing interest in online shopping during the pandemic. But what he explained to me is that reusables and the efficacy of them really depends on if you're talking about a system where consumers return the packaging for refill. It depends on what system is in place for the cleaning and sterilization of those packages. So if you've got an industrial cleaning system, people are more confident than getting those packages back with food in them. So although I had thought, yeah, COVID is going to really impact reusables. In fact, I found that that was not necessarily the case.

 

Sean:

Interesting. That's been, and there's been a couple times where we've thought things and ask podcast guests that very question and thought that, Oh, this must have some major impact on it and was incorrect, obviously. So that's interesting. So I guess to kind of sum up, I guess, kind of give us a lay of the land on where we are now with reusables.

 

Anne Marie:

We see a lot of really exciting things happening, but reusable packaging is still a very, very small part of the overall packaging market. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation just released its 2020 global commitment progress record. And in it, they mentioned or pointed out that it's only 1.9% of the volume by weight versus 98.1% of single use plastics. But there are positive developments. Also in the report, they indicated that 56% of their signatories reported either piloting a program or will be soon piloting a program, which was up 43% from the previous year. And one of the exciting developments I've also seen recently is reusable packaging in retail stores. So one example is Dove deodorant. They recently released a reusable deodorant container. It's stainless steel. It's beautiful. It's something you would not mind having on your counter top. And you buy refills of the deodorant. Secret and Old Spice have also released refillable deodorant containers.

Also recently Unilever with its Love, Beauty and Planets personal care brand just introduced aluminum containers for these products where they're refilled by larger plastic bottles of product that you order online that they said they've significantly reduced as far as the amount of plastic used as well as the amount of recycled content. More brands are continuing to join Loop and consumers are really starting to embrace renewable packaging as they become more familiar and used to the idea of a sharing economy with things like Uber and Airbnb. So they're more familiar with it, less concerned about the hygienics or less hesitant over the hygienics.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has indicated that globally by replacing just 20% of today's single use packaging with reusables, that offers an opportunity for $10 billion. So it's a huge opportunity. And I would encourage anyone who's interested in learning more about reasonable to read, reuse, which as I mentioned has 69 case studies from around the globe of pilots or systems that are put in place. And also if you're curious to know what these signatories are doing, you can look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's 2020 report, and you can drill down with each one to see what they're doing in the area of reuse.

 

Sean:

Oh, that's fantastic. Because I know for people that this is especially the generation coming up, the millennials and the younger generation are much more aware of these types of things and being sustainable and reusable. So I'm glad we can offer them some additional resources that they can check out. I really want to thank you for taking the time that you took with us today and to really lay out the ins and outs and everything about reusable packaging. I learned a lot and I'm sure that our listeners will as well.

 

Anne Marie:

Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed joining you today.