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The Next Economy
A Vindication of Packaging-Reuse Systems

How reuse models in Latin America have succeeded, and what the Global North can learn from them.

Last year, while traveling in a beach town in the south of Mexico, I found a small kombucha store run by a European couple that bombarded shoppers with marketing messages including “sustainably sourced” and “ethically made.” Its returnable packaging system required you to leave a US$2 deposit for an amber glass bottle only returnable in that store (the current minimum wage in the country is US$10.60 per day).

These types of businesses are multiplying in Latin America — as “digital nomads” flock to better weather and places where their foreign currency can afford them a better standard of living set up camp to appeal to sustainability-conscious travelers.

Meanwhile, the street market in the closest city is filled with products packaged in reused PET bottles, secondhand clothing stores and reusable dishware. Everything from honey and liquid soap to mezcal filled these PET bottles; but there was no mention of anything being “upcycled” or sustainable.

There are two types of consumers interested in sustainability: Those who do it because it is the “right” thing to do, and those who see that it is a cheaper way to live. Sustainability in this context is not an ethical decision, but a financial one.

How Latin America has achieved returnable packaging

This second driver of sustainable lifestyles is often excluded from conversations around waste reduction, even though it’s one that impacts and connects with the average consumer the most. Countries such as Mexico have grown their reusable packaging models significantly, focusing on commodity and incentivized sustainability.

Returnable packaging in Mexico makes up roughly 50.6 percent of RTD packaging — with glass bottles being reused up to 50 times, and PET bottles up to 20 times before being recycled. According to Zero Waste Europe, glass has to be reused only 2-3 times to reduce its emissions. This is a massive benefit, as — according to the INEGI (National Institute of Statistics and Geography), cost is the top reason most Mexicans choose returnable packaging; second being habit formation, and third being the perceived improvement in taste. The deposit for a 40-oz beer bottle in the country is a little bit less than a dollar, and it is returnable at almost any convenience store. This is enough for people to make the effort to return the packaging, but not too much to prevent them from participating.

Companies including beer giant Grupo Modelo are looking to transition to 100 percent returnable or mostly recycled glass by 2025; given its 96 percent return rate, this seems completely feasible. Modelo incentivizes consumers to return bottles — with its “Cada botella cuenta” (“Every bottle counts”) campaign offering financial rewards, partnering with delivery services, and even free festival tickets for using the ecolana (“eco money”) app for returning their bottles. Although the program is still quite new, its success will rely on the value people see being created, marketing and communication, and the user experience.

Likewise, in Costa Rica, Coca-Cola Latin America is pushing the “Universal Bottle” — a returnable bottle that will replace all single-use versions of many of the beverage giant’s products. Jorge Montaño, Latin American representative for moving-goods provider CHEP, told Reforma that reusable packaging can reduce up to a 60 percent of a product’s cost compared to its single-use counterpart. It is a clear case in which economic drivers can overpower ethics — not only for businesses but for consumers, too — and showcases how this can be an opportunity rather than a challenge.

In developing nations, the majority of the population has adopted sustainable practices as part of a mindset where we can’t afford to waste anything — which is a breeding ground for innovation; this is true for businesses and individuals alike, and it is the mindset that we must embrace to tackle the many challenges that come with climate change.

What developed nations can learn

Jo Barnard, from London-based design and innovation consultancy Morrama, recently told Reuters that one of the concerns in adopting reuse is that the cost of delivery, collection, cleaning and manufacturing of durable packaging will ultimately be passed to consumers. And cost, according to Deloitte’s Consumer Signals, was ranked as one of the top reasons why consumers — mostly from the Global North — chose not to buy a sustainable product.

Reusable packaging and a lot of the zero-waste conversation are unfortunately still associated with higher purchasing power — both in developed and developing nations. This myth of sustainability as a premium leaves people behind and alienates communities that are essential for it be successful at the necessary scale. According to a survey by City to Sea, the majority of people in the US say they are likely to try products in returnable packaging when available. So, monsumers want to adopt more sustainable practices — as long as they feel that they can afford them.

In the US, recent initiatives from major brands such as Starbucks — as well as legislation such as Extended Producer Responsibility bills and the Right to Repair Act — are hopeful signals that more reusable packaging models might be on their way in. The hope is that the burden of these costs, as stated previously, won’t fall on the average person. This is a great opportunity to create trust with consumers — to show that companies understand potential economic and logistical barriers and seek to provide them with easy solutions.

Brands cannot be blind to how economic barriers manifest into consumers’ everyday lives. Instead of only touting reusable packaging’s environmental benefits, companies must also begin highlighting the financial benefits of adopting these systems. Focusing only on ethics and believing this will inspire people to change is not enough — and, more often than not, leaves important demographics behind.

Seeing how developing nations and low-income individuals with all their unique challenges have already found solutions that the Global North is just examining is vital for a more sustainable and equitable future. In doing so, companies must engage a diverse range of voices (both external and internal) and approaches to drive this change — diversity in socio-economic status, national origin, and lived experiences are a must for creating equitable and effective climate solutions. Only with these perspectives in mind can we create sustainable systems that work for everyone.