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The Next Economy
New Study Calls for a ‘Reuse Revolution’ in Packaging

A new Ellen MacArthur Foundation study shows that a reusable packaging economy could lower both GHGs and water use by up to 35-70% compared with single-use plastics.

Returnable, reusable packaging can offer significant environmental benefits, and — once scaled up through the right approaches — can compete with the economics of single-use packaging for certain products, according to a new study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Unlocking a Reuse Revolution shines a light on the benefits of adopting reusable plastic packaging for selected beverage, food and personal care items when designed collaboratively across the industry and operated at large scale. It was developed with input from more than 60 leading organizations including the European Investment Bank; national governments; reuse experts; and major brands and retailers including The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.

Recent findings in the Foundation’s Global Commitment Five Years In report suggest that without a significant shift towards reuse, worldwide virgin plastic use in packaging is unlikely to decrease below today’s levels before 2050. It identified the scaling of reuse as one of the key hurdles to overcome in reversing the tide on plastic waste and pollution.

The Reuse Revolution study shows that in the most ambitious scenario, returnable plastic packaging could lower both greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 35-70 percent compared with single-use plastics.

“Embracing [reuse] gives us the opportunity to tackle plastic pollution, ease pressure on our natural resources, and make strides towards net zero,” said Sander Defruyt, Plastics Initiative Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “Scaling reuse will be a major transition and won’t happen overnight. This analytical study gives us greater insight into the key drivers that affect the environmental and economic performance of return systems. Yet, it doesn’t have all the answers. We now need to see more research and groundwork in specific geographies and sectors to determine the best course of action and make return models at scale a reality.

“No single organization can drive the necessary change by itself; it will require a collaborative effort from businesses, policymakers and financial institutions. Together, they can kickstart the reuse revolution and get the world on track to tackling the plastic crisis.”

The study, developed in partnership with Systemiq and Eunomia, focuses on returnable packaging — which, once bought and returned by customers, is professionally cleaned and refilled before being sold again. The model is gaining popularity and scale as more brands sign on to the Loop platform, and companies including Revue (fka Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health and brands including Starbucks are now exploring reusable/returnable packaging.

To drive global change, the Foundation is calling on leaders across the private, public and finance sectors — to take a fresh approach to expand the reuse economy through shared infrastructure and packaging standardization, and to work collaboratively to reach high return rates.

“We’re pleased to be working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and other industry partners to explore the economic, environmental, and experiential impacts of reuse models versus single-use,” said Jolanda de Rooij, Senior Sustainability Manager Circular Economy at Unilever. “Getting these models working economically at scale, however, will take time and will require significant collaboration between retailers, manufacturers, policymakers, and civil society. Fragmented efforts will not be enough to drive the necessary systems change.”

The Foundation has highlighted the important role of policy in scaling reuse. It sees the ongoing development of the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, and negotiations for a Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution (the latest round of which have stalled) as major opportunities to put in place ambitious reuse policies — including time-bound, sectoral reuse targets — together with the enabling conditions needed to help reuse thrive.

Ambroise Fayolle, VP at the European Investment Bank, said: “This valuable study issues a blueprint for achieving the crucial step change from recycling to reuse in a global economy. Shifting towards reuse systems can increase circularity at scale, whilst at the same time creating new business options and social benefits.”

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