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Waste Not
The New Reuse Economy:
What’s Working (and Not Working) on the Quest for a Packaging Waste-Free Future

While recycling and lightweighting packaging strategies are helpful, they still align more with a linear rather than circular economy. Here, Upstream CEO Matt Prindiville lays out his organization’s vision for a truly plastic waste-free future.

Achieving a world free of plastic waste is still very much a pipe dream. It remains a key driver of global pollution and continues to grow relentlessly, as efforts to curb it fall short. Earlier this year, a study from OECD found that only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled around the world, while 22 percent is mismanaged. Much of what isn’t recycled or captured effectively falls into the category of single-use packaging.

According to not-for-profit organization Upstream, a trillion disposable food and beverage packaging items are used each year in the US, comprising 67 percent of litter found in the environment. Solutions to date have mainly focused on recycling and lightweighting packaging, which — while helpful — still very much align with a linear rather than circular economy.

“So many of the environmental problems that we are seeing in the world are design problems,” Upstream CEO Matt Prindiville tells Sustainable Brands® (SB). “It’s not just the design of the product — there are also system design flaws. Oftentimes, the front end of the supply chain and the back end are not connected to each other.”

Packaging needs to be thought of as less of a product and more of a service, Prindiville emphasizes. That means building better reuse-and-refill models into the system that can not only serve consumers better, but create efficiencies for supply chains and deliver lower costs for businesses.

“What we are dealing with right now is 50 to 60 years of supply chain optimization around a linear economy; and the inertia of that system is very, very strong,” he says. “If we are going to overcome that inertia, we will need a lot of different things — including incentives, design support, infrastructure and public-private partnerships.”

This thinking has been crystallized in Upstream’s latest report, The New Reuse Economy, which outlines a vision for 30 percent of consumable goods to be sold in reusable formats in the US and Canada by 2030 by transforming three key sectors where reuse and refill has most potential to scale — food service, beverage and consumer packaged goods (CPG).

The report presents scenarios as to how this could work in practice. For example, diners serve food on real plates, cutlery and cups with any to-go coffee and drinks provided in returnable, reusable cups. Restaurants, grocery stores and delis employ services that provide sanitized, reusable to-go containers for prepared food, takeout and delivery; while CPGs are delivered to homes in reusable containers, totes or mailers for pick up by delivery drivers — á la the milkman of years past, or the present-day Loop model.

Prindiville says that infrastructure will be key to bringing the vision to life but maintains that a lot of existing logistics and recycling networks can be reorganized or repurposed to achieve this. Building wash and refill hubs near to, or part of, a recycling facility could be a first step.

“We can work to change the way recycling operates to accept reusables and refillables,” he asserts. “We could use a collection system that users are familiar with and change the operation at the recycling facility to be able to accept reusable containers.”

This is already happening with deposit return schemes (DRS) for beverage containers, Prindiville adds. “Deposit return schemes are going to be really important for scaling reuse and refill. Pretty much everywhere where you have beverage refill that is at scale, you have a deposit system.”

Upstream’s report highlights DRS, along with Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR) polices, as important tools for funding the build-out of reuse and refill infrastructure. With EPR, a portion of producer fees could be earmarked for reuse; while DRS could channel a high percentage of unclaimed deposits toward such development.

While EPR legislation has been slow to take off in the US, Prindiville is optimistic that the tide is turning — pointing to various EPR bills that have recently been passed in states including California and Colorado.

“I expect to see a dozen or more bills introduced to state legislatures soon; I think probably three to five of them will pass. If we rinse and repeat that process over next two to three years, I think we’ll quickly get to a place where more than half the country is covered by EPR laws,” he says.

Importantly, brands are increasingly voicing their support for EPR. One recommendation in Upstream’s report is for industry leaders to work to pass mandatory DRS for containers with reuse/refill targets to spur the development of the necessary service infrastructure. Another is for companies to set targets to transition from single-use to reuse — similar to those Coca-Cola and PepsiCo both recently announced.

Prindiville acknowledges that brands will need support to ensure that the right collection and washing infrastructure is in place so they can participate, and also to help them rethink how they deliver their products.

“We don’t want each brand to try to do that on their own; that essentially could result in many different systems that don’t work and speak to each other. Having some kind of standardization in these systems, in the infrastructure, in the way that reuse starts to scale, is going to be really important,” he says.

That standardization could come through greater harmonization of barcodes/QR code types or RFID technology used in packaging to track how reusables are moved around — particularly for CPG, and also in the types of containers being used for the food service and beverage sectors. But it’s not just technical challenges that need addressing — changing the dynamics around market competition could go a long way to accelerating action in this space.

“What we’ve heard from those brands that are really excited about reuse and refill is that they want to be able to compete on the quality of their product, not on the packaging. We know that sales drives all of this, but there is a disconnect at times between the sustainability and marketing teams,” Prindiville says. “When you have a package that can perform better for the environment, what some of the research has shown is that people get excited by that and become more flexible in potentially shifting their brand choices. It’s one of these areas where sustainability and marketing can align.”

Ultimately, Prindiville thinks the best solutions will come from impacted stakeholders aligning around vision and co-creating together with the buy-in to get things done. He points to the work of Reuse Seattle as a case in point, and one that other public-private partnerships could follow.

“Having brands really look at their products, look at their supply chains, think about which percentages of the products they’re developing can go reuse or refill and then to make commitments — that’s really going to help set the stage,” he says.