The Next “R” in the Sustainable Triad: Reuse

A few months ago, we introduced the concept of material reduction in the development of sustainable packaging and labeling (Material Reduction).  It is the first element of the “Reduce – Reuse – Recycle” fundamentals we are all aware of. This month we talk about ‘reuse’ of packaging and packaging elements as a strategy to achieve a sustainable program.  Nearly every consumer goods package produced today is a ‘single-use’ package.  It will hold a product a consumer will purchase at retail, and then be discarded when the packaging is emptied. In a best-case scenario, all or some of the package components will be recycled.

But what if instead of being discarded, with no guarantee that it will not end up in a landfill, or worse, one of the world’s oceans, it provided additional function to the consumer?  That is the main subject of an article published in 2019 by the Ellen MacArthur FoundationReuse: Rethinking Packaging1.  There are four reuse models examined, and while these models do not apply to all consumer packaging, they do provide strategies to remove a large amount of packaging from single-use life cycles.

The Four Reuse Models

  • Refill at Home
  • Return from Home
  • Refill On-the-Go
  • Return On-the-Go

Refill at Home: Consumers will refill a reusable container at home.  For example, the ‘primary’ first purchase package could be a more rigid construction with durable branding and labeling elements.  The refill packages purchased later can consist of ‘lighter’ and more readily recycled material intended to get the product home for refilling the primary.  Concentrated product can also be purchased in much smaller quantities (and smaller packaging) to mix with water in the primary package.

Return from Home:  Consumers use the product, and then the packaging is picked up from home by a logistics firm or other designated service. This model would be comparable to services currently available for propane tanks for home grills.  The ‘packaging’ would be different, but the concept would be the same.  Imagine a service that would deliver economy-size detergents that would dispense product with a built-in tap.  Consumers could leave the empty for a service to swap out a refilled dispensing container.

AWT utilizes a similar model in a business-to-business (B2B) setting. We deliver rolls of pressure-sensitive labels to various customers in a specialized reusable corrugated container. Once our customer uses the labels, the containers can be folded flat and returned to AWT on a pallet via parcel delivery service to be reused.

Refill On-the-Go: Consumers would bring their empty containers to a retail establishment to be refilled. We see examples of this already where spring water is made available at retail, and consumers can bring custom refill packaging of various sizes.   The concept is also in practice for grains, flour, and other bulk cooking/baking staples.

Return On-the-Go: Consumers return the packaging at a designated store drop-off point such as a deposit return machine or receptacle.  If you are old enough to remember returning pop bottles to a supermarket for a refund of your deposit, you understand this model.  Reusable containers are cleaned, refilled, and sold again at retail until it is determined the package can no longer be reused.

All four reuse models have sustainable benefits:

  • Less material is used to create packaging, reducing energy use and transportation needs.
  • Less packaging is introduced to the system, meaning less packaging directed to landfills or otherwise improperly discarded.
  • Overall reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) and other harmful emissions due to the reduced production of packaging and transportation required.

There are some assumptions made in the above models, and as we have said in previous blogs, we are not quite there on an infrastructure basis for all these models to work perfectly.  These are solutions that will become more available as consumer education and adoption continue to make progress. The experts at AWT are a great resource as you look for ways to make your packaging strategy more sustainable.

Look for the 3rd installment of our series “Reduce – Reuse – Recycle” focused on recycling later this year.

1For further reading, please see the document available on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation web site – Reuse: Rethinking Packaging linked here: Article Link

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