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The Next Economy
Groundbreaking Report Shows Pathway to Scale for Reusable, Circular Packaging Models

In the report, Closed Loop Partners, IDEO and the NextGen Consortium share learnings from multiple pilots of reusable coffee cup systems that eliminate waste.

On Thursday, the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners released a first-of-its-kind report that offers a roadmap for durable, reusable packaging systems that reduce the need for single-use packaging.

Bringing Reusable Packaging Systems to Life draws on insights from multiple reusable cup pilots conducted in partnership with the NextGen Consortium and IDEO, outlining key lessons learned and sharing a blueprint and open-source resource to encourage collaboration and the growth of reuse models.

With plastic waste entering the ocean at a rate of 11 million metric tons a year, microplastics found atop Mount Everest and even in the food we consume; consumers, regulators and advocacy groups are increasingly clamoring for change — and reuse models, which extend the use and lifespan of valuable materials, offer a promising pathway forward.

“Our findings are unequivocal; it’s no longer a question of if, but when reuse models will be implemented at scale. It’s both possible and probable,” says Kate Daly, Managing Director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. “Reuse models are a critical tool in the fight against plastic waste, and brands and retailers are increasingly exploring them as a viable waste-reduction strategy. Reusable packaging and cups are just the beginning; refill, resale and rental models that keep materials in circulation are poised to reinvent all kinds of product formats and industries. The future for reuse is bright, and now we need to work collaboratively toward it.”

The NextGen Consortium — convened by Closed Loop Partners with founding partners Starbucks and McDonald’s, among others — aims to address the world’s single-use food-packaging waste by advancing the design, commercialization and recovery of packaging alternatives — starting with the hot and cold, to-go fiber cup system. The Consortium has conducted robust testing, funding and scaling of reusable cup models; most recently, it ran pilots with NextGen Cup Challenge winners CupClub and Muuse, across clusters of local cafes in San Francisco and Palo Alto, CA.

“In order for reusable packaging systems to be a viable solution, they need to address the systemic infrastructure challenges,” Marion Gross, Chief Supply Chain Officer, North America at McDonald’s, says in the report. “The value of this system’s model lies in its networked approach, which is one of the reasons we joined the NextGen Consortium. Collaborating to innovate and test solutions is essential to achieving our ambition of increasing circularity for McDonald’s packaging and at industry-wide scale.”

Before scaling any system, proof of concept and rigorous testing is essential. NextGen’s pilots have validated a sustained and methodical approach to iterating and testing reuse models, revealing critical inputs and considerations for scale — including engaging diverse stakeholders, making sustainable material choices, selecting appropriate locations and payment models, and optimizing health and safety protocols. Ultimately, reuse models can and must provide a seamless, convenient experience for companies and customers — and are applicable far beyond just cups.

“With single-use packaging volumes on the rise amidst the pandemic, safe and hygienic reuse models are critical to addressing the urgent issue,” says Erin Simon, Head of Plastic Waste and Business at WWF. “The NextGen Consortium’s reusable cup pilots are critical for providing the necessary data and understanding to advance these kinds of models as a whole and reduce waste.”  

The success of reusable packaging schemes such as TerraCycle’s Loop platform — which ships hundreds of household-name food and beverage, household and personal-care products to consumers’ doors in unique, branded, reusable packaging; and expanded nationwide last fall — also demonstrates both the market demand and viability for reuse models at scale. Much like Next Gen Consortium’s pilots of reusable coffee cups at Starbucks, Loop will partner this year with fast-food giants Burger King, Tim Hortons and McDonald’s on reusable packaging solutions in their restaurants.