Published 1 month ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: Coca-Cola Latin America is leaning heavily into returnable bottles. | Coca-Cola Latin America
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
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
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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
models significantly, focusing on commodity and incentivized sustainability.
Returnable packaging in Mexico makes up roughly 50.6 percent of RTD
— with glass bottles being reused up to 50 times, and PET bottles up to 20 times
before being recycled. According to Zero Waste
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
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
— a returnable bottle that will replace all single-use versions of many of the
beverage giant’s products. Jorge
American representative for moving-goods provider CHEP, told
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
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.
Jo Barnard, from London-based design
and innovation consultancy Morrama, recently told
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
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
that are essential for it be successful at the necessary scale. According to a
survey by City to
the majority of people in the US say they are likely to try products in
when available. So, monsumers want to adopt more sustainable practices — as long
as they feel that they can afford
In the US, recent initiatives from major brands such as
— as well as legislation such as Extended Producer
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
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
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.
Published Jan 10, 2024 8am EST / 5am PST / 1pm GMT / 2pm CET
Having grown up in Mexico City and living a life of contrasts, she focuses on supporting underserved populations from an international and multilingual perspective. She is committed to building relationships and harnessing strengths to reach common goals — including tackling the climate crisis and environmental justice.