Cities are complex ecosystems that both exacerbate and suffer from the scale of packaging waste. Standards for key areas of design, safety and city programming minimize risk, drive collaboration and provide trustworthy information for stewarding game-changing reuse strategies.
Our society has a longstanding relationship with and dependency on single-use products. Businesses and consumers alike are accustomed to its virtues of cost and convenience, making everyday items accessible to more people than ever before. But because of this reliance and focus on a system that takes, makes and wastes products after one use, few guidelines or blueprints for viable, sustainable alternatives — including reuse — exist in a usable format.
Reuse models are growing across the modern economy, but they are fragmented such that they cannot achieve impact of scale. Without foundational guidelines to drive collaboration, standardization and defining of best practices, it would be near-impossible for new and emerging reuse models to effectively implement or accelerate for impact.
But there’s a case for doing so. Reuse systems can reduce plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; and they are estimated to present a $10 billion business opportunity if only 20 percent of single-use packaging today were converted to reuse. So, how do we ensure everyone gets what they need out of their products — without the waste?
Many would argue that ending packaging waste begins with design. Modern packages are lightweight, inexpensive and high-function (the world is used to the spouts, resealable closures, and easy-open tops of single-use containers), and literally designed to go in the trash. Defining the specifications of a package that can be physically and systematically reused is one of the first things to do.
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Then, determining exactly how many times said package can be cycled around (including collection, cleaning and refilling for the next person to enjoy) before it comes out superior to single-use demonstrates the value. The fewer times, the better; but a recommendation from an industry expert or experienced practitioner in the space can help businesses at different stages in their journey consider how and when reuse will work for them.
There are a lot of ideas and concepts out there; but with so much work to do in solving single-use plastic waste, clear and consistent guardrails for reuse will steer the way for scaled, widespread adoption and impact. This is the purpose of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Consumers Beyond Waste (CBW) initiative’s community papers, released in conjunction with the WEF’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit during UN General Assembly week earlier this year.
Featuring Design Guidelines, Safety Guidelines and The City Playbook, the documents are authored by a variety of contributors with a stake in the race to a less wasteful world; I am one of them — along with city officials, quality-assurance experts, retailers and many more leaders from the public and private sector. The papers offer a holistic view for reuse in different environments, as well as the different entry points for stakeholders along the supply chain.
Offering recommendations based on experience, Loop has our own design guidelines for brands and manufacturers entering the platform — we recommend a product be able to withstand a minimum of 10 reuse cycles to qualify, and be recyclable into itself at the end of its life.
Through this approach we have seen tremendous innovation, not just in sustainability but also in packaging design. Through reverse logistics, it’s possible to recover durable packaging forms in combinations of materials that improve functionality above and beyond the convenience of many single-use packages, such as a resealable food container or spring-loaded soap pump.
Designing for reuse also includes the architecture of the systems packages flow through. Where Loop is a coalition of major consumer product companies and leading retailers working with trusted vendors to transport, clean, store and refill containers, it's a matter of front and backend design to enable a manufacturer to produce reusables that can be sold at any retailer for a consumer to buy and return anywhere, safely and conveniently.
Where today’s largest scaled reuse model is pre-fill, which allows the consumer to buy filled products on a store shelf and return the empties into a bin (think beverages in Germany or propane tanks in the US), the challenge is that the models are incompatible: Empty propane tanks cannot be returned to the same location as an empty beer keg, and vice versa.
Creating a “buy anywhere, return anywhere” ecosystem for reusables will make it easy for consumers to access, and businesses to sell. This, too, is a feat of design. Residents in Loop markets can now enter their favorite retailers and find a part of the store dedicated to reuse. With purchase, a deposit is paid, which is refunded in full upon return to any Loop retailer, putting this “waste” into a designated reuse bin versus a trash can or recycling bin.
Just before the community papers I mentioned earlier, CBW released the Future of Reusable Consumption Models report, which outlined aspects of a “successful, large-scale, system-wide reuse paradigm.” One of these is consumer experience, where people have access to a variety of reusables that can compete with disposables on a number of scales, including convenience.
People purchase consumables in a variety of settings, so it's important they have access to a variety of experiences. For grocery, we have Tesco in the UK; Carrefour in France; Aeon in Japan; and Walgreens and Kroger’s Fred Meyer banner coming soon in the US; and the biggest names in QSR (quick service restaurant): McDonald’s was the first to pilot the model in select stores in the UK, with Tim Horton’s in Canada and Burger King in several countries to follow.
Which brings us to the matter of public health and safety, which have a great deal to do with packaging and systems design. Consumers need to know a system that circulates containers is safe and sanitary. Different product categories have different health and safety requirements — the food and beverage industry tends to have stricter standards than body care and cosmetics, for example.
Packaging durability is a huge factor in designing for safety, as it impacts cleaning processes, degradation, and consumer safety and ease of use. If a package is cleaned 10 times at a certain temperature, materials must not prematurely degrade aesthetically or functionally; and if the type of material is one that might break with the consumer or along the route, design or logistics must allow it to do so safely; communications can support proper handling and education.
Government plays a role in overseeing regulations for public health. As the Governor of the City of Tokyo stated in Loop and the World Economic Forum’s recent United Nations week press conference, “Large cities in developed countries, such as Tokyo, can make a significant impact on the global economy by playing a leading role,” noting reuse was standard in the region for glass bottles for beer, sake and more just 30 years ago.
Cities are complex ecosystems that both exacerbate and suffer from the scale of the waste crisis. In the City Playbook, CBW notes some of the greatest challenges cities face are funding, infrastructure and institutional barriers; so, the consensus to pushing initiatives through includes seeking ways to answer big questions about viability and benefit. This is key to developing a roadmap for cities that is socially equitable, environmentally positive and safe.
Examples of actions cities might take for the short term include aligning reuse with existing objectives (i.e. job creation and economic development) or testing reusables for city government administration (i.e. food service and cafeteria for public buildings), so as to engage policymakers, NGOs, local businesses, media, residents and the many other internal and external stakeholders towards the vision for a circular city.
Points of consensus are milestones in the journey out of the waste crisis. Agreement on key areas of design, safety and city programming minimizes risk, drives collaboration and provides changemakers trustworthy information for stewarding reuse strategies and program development within organizations. There’s so much room for innovation; but to bring them to scale, actors must come together over a shared vision, with the resources to back it up.