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Reusable Packaging Is the Latest Eco-Friendly Trend. But Does It Actually Make a Difference?

12 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

When you toss a plastic bottle into your recycling bin, there’s no guarantee it actually gets recycled. In fact, odds are, it doesn’t.

According to the World Economic Forum, just 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally. And because of complexities in the recycling process, huge amounts of single-use plastic (as well as glass and cardboard) that consumers try to recycle ultimately end up getting burned or tossed into landfills anyway. If recyclable materials are contaminated by food waste, or if consumers misunderstand what can be recycled and where—to cite two common examples—their garbage may not end up being repurposed after all. A 2017 study in Science Advances estimated that, of all the plastic waste generated globally up to 2015, just 9% had been recycled, while 12% was incinerated and the rest ended up in landfills or scattered around the natural environment. Some plastic waste is burned to create fuel or energy, but this process is itself energy-intensive and emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Given that broken system, it’s clear that “recycling our way out of [the climate crisis] will not work,” says Sander Defruyt, who runs plastic innovation initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), a sustainability-focused nonprofit. “Reuse, as well as plain elimination of a lot of packaging we don’t need, will also have to be a crucial part of the solution.”

Recycling is, at its core, about reuse. But Defruyt is talking about something slightly different than that broad definition. Proponents of what’s known as a “circular economy” argue that, instead of feeding into the convoluted recycling process, companies should replace single-use containers with those that can be used over and over again—often a durable metal or glass vessel that can be refilled either in a store, by a company or in a consumer’s own home.

These systems have a clear appeal. They’re intuitive, for one thing: it’s easy to understand the concept of refilling a bottle, whereas it’s hard to know where the plastic container you toss in a bin actually goes, or what happens to it when it gets there. And rather than dealing with waste after the fact, circular systems reduce it at the source. Using the same containers, in the same form, over and over again ideally eases demand for virgin materials, reduces energy needed to spit out thousands of new plastic bottles or cardboard boxes, and prevents heaps of trash from ending up in landfills or oceans. But such programs are not perfect. They rely heavily on consumers following directions and actually reusing packages as intended, and often involve upcharges that exclude consumers without disposable income. Perhaps more importantly, the environmental benefits of these initiatives may not be as great as they appear.

The idea of reusing containers is hardly new. If you’ve ever bought a vat of hand soap and used it to refill various dispensers around your house, or brought your own cup to Starbucks, you’ve taken part in this system.

But in recent years, companies have experimented with new ways of doing it. The startup Loop, an offshoot of the recycling company TerraCycle (which critics say does not recycle as much as it promises), launched in the U.S. in 2019 as an e-commerce platform selling food, beauty products and household essentials, all in reusable packaging. Consumers could order quinoa in a metal canister or face wash in a glass jar, then send back the empty packaging for cleaning and refilling and repeat the cycle. On Sept. 22, Loop announced that it would also begin offering products in a limited number of brick-and-mortar Walgreens/Duane Reade and Kroger stores nationwide. It’s also working with retailers in the U.K., Japan, France and Australia.

Global corporations including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Procter & Gamble have also piloted reusable packaging programs within the last few years. Unilever, for example, set up refill stations for select hair care products in some Walmart locations in Mexico. It also offers refillable versions of some of its Love Beauty and Planet-branded hair products at certain Target locations in the U.S. In Chile, it works with a startup that delivers laundry detergent and cleaning product refills to customers’ homes by electric tricycle. Major beauty brands like the Body Shop are also experimenting with in-store refill stations. Then there are startups like CleanPath and Blueland, whose entire business model is designed around selling concentrated detergents and cleaning products that people can mix with water in reusable containers at home.

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Right now, reuse programs like these are small potatoes in the scheme of global manufacturing. Dozens of major companies, including Unilever, Walmart and Johnson & Johnson, share data on their use of both recycled and reusable materials with EMF. Cumulatively, less than 2% of their plastic packaging was reusable as of 2019, Defruyt says. Still, over the past few years, the circular economy movement has gained steam. In the U.S. alone, according to market-research firm Mintel, the reusable packaging market for beauty and personal care products grew by about 65% from June 2020 to May 2021. Unilever and Procter & Gamble have pledged to halve their use of virgin plastics by 2025 and 2030, respectively.

While the particulars of reuse programs vary from brand to brand, two questions apply across the board. One, will customers buy into the system? And two, is the program actually environmentally friendly?

The answer to the second question depends heavily on the answer to the first.

Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, says there’s a “payback” period associated with any reusable item—a number of times it must be reused before it’s actually better for the environment than the single-use alternative. Something like reusable sandwich wrap may never break even, according to Miller’s research, because the energy and resources required to make and wash it far exceed what goes into making flimsy disposable bags. (Ditto for many cotton tote bags, as explored recently by the New York Times.)

Refillable replacements for containers that use rigid plastics, like shampoo bottles, are a better bet, Miller says. Making a reusable version of that bottle likely takes only a little more energy than the plastic one, so each time it gets reused, it moves a little closer to paying off its environmental debt—assuming, of course, that buyers refill as directed.

Consumer interest in reuse programs is there: In a 2021 survey run by Trivium Packaging and Boston Consulting Group, about 70% of respondents said they would be willing to pay more for a product that comes in sustainable packaging. But there aren’t many studies on how often consumers actually refill multi-use packages. If someone buys a metal shampoo bottle, gets lazy and tosses it in the garbage instead of refilling it, that may end up being worse for the environment than simply buying a single-use bottle, because more energy went into making the durable metal version.

The mechanics behind reuse programs matter too, says Daniel Johnson, chair of the department of packaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “For the right product category and the right supply chain, the effect [of reusable packaging] can be huge,” Johnson says. “But it comes down to, what methods are you going to use to try to recover the packaging…and what does it take to get more product to the consumer?”

For example, if someone has to mail back an empty metal bottle for refilling, there will be an environmental burden associated with transporting it back and forth and cleaning it—one which may eclipse the environmental impact of a single-use plastic bottle that actually gets recycled, Johnson says. Direct-to-consumer companies that give people all the tools they need to refill at home—like shampoo capsules or detergent concentrates—are a good option because they don’t require return shipping and are convenient, he says.

For a reuse program to work, “the simpler, the better,” agrees David Luttenberger, who heads the department that researches packaging at Mintel. Convenience is key—but since refilling containers is never going to be easier than buying from Amazon, brands should also make it “more of an experience for consumers,” Luttenberger says, with well-designed refill stations or discounts on repeat purchases.

For Lush, a Canada-based cosmetics company, reusable packaging is something of a fallback option. Plan A is selling goods without any packaging at all, as Lush does with about 65% of its permanent products, says Katrina Shum, Lush’s sustainability manager—in these cases, the brand sells solids like bath bombs and shampoo bars loose. Liquid products that require packaging, like lotions and shower gels, are sold in pots made from post-consumer-recycled plastic. If customers return five pots to the store, they get a free face mask.

Even with the promise of free stuff, Lush has only about a 17% return rate in North America, Shum says. And because it’s so difficult to adequately clean the returned pots, Lush instead breaks them down and uses them to make new ones. Doing so reduces the brand’s need to buy recycled plastic from other sources, but Shum admits she’s “not too sure if it’s really too much different,” from an environmental perspective, than simply making new pots from recycled material.

TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky says Loop has a return rate of more than 80%, largely because of the financial incentives it offers: customers must pay a deposit of up to $10 (for a pack of Clorox cleaning wipes) for each container they purchase, and it’s only refunded when they return it for refilling. That concept is well-established. A 2019 report from researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology found that, compared to the rest of the country, glass-bottle recycling rates are 40% higher in the 10 U.S. states that bake in a refundable deposit to the cost of items that come in such containers.

But while Loop’s return rate is high, its denominator is low—only about 20,000 people worldwide have used Loop’s pilot programs since they launched two years ago. Szaky is frank about the model’s shortcomings: ordering from the website is expensive (on top of the deposits, round-trip shipping costs at least $20 in the U.S.) and somewhat inconvenient (items come in bulky tote bags best suited for large orders). But, he says, those flaws might be overcome once Loop can move its offerings from e-commerce to retail stores, as will happen soon in the U.S. That was always the end game, Szaky says, because it eliminates some of these costs and hassles. ”If you’re already going to walk to a Duane Reade, what’s the big deal in taking some empties?”

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By the beginning of 2022, Loop will enable U.S. customers to buy dozens of brand-name products in refillable containers at select Kroger and Walgreens/Duane Reade stores across the country, then return them at any participating location. (The website will be phased out as the retail program expands, Szaky says.) Loop is also working with fast food restaurants including Burger King to offer reusable food and beverage containers that can also be returned at any participating Loop retailer.

At a September reusability forum hosted by Loop, the World Economic Forum and the World Wildlife Fund, Kate Daly of the think tank Closed Loop Partners pitched an even bigger idea: cities could someday put reusable container dropoff stations on the street, as they currently do with trash and recycling bins. There are obviously logistical challenges around collecting, sorting and returning reusable packages from multiple makers, but Daly said this kind of widespread adoption is crucial for the concept to ever make a significant impact. “You want to have every citizen within a city have access to this new system,” she said.

But are the payoffs really worth the logistical headaches? Though packaging is perhaps the aspect of consumer goods that is most visibly wasteful, “It’s often the product itself that is more environmentally intensive than the package,” Miller says, when you factor in the water, materials and energy required to grow, make and ship it. For the average food product, she says, packaging accounts for only about 10% of its total environmental burden—so while it makes sense for companies to experiment with reusable packaging, it’s also something of a baby step on the path to actual eco-friendliness.

In other words, reusing a bottle is great, but it doesn’t counteract the water and energy required to make and transport the thing in that bottle. As long as we want a fridge full of sodas and a bathroom full of shampoos, there will be environmental prices to pay. Packaging is just the tax on top.

Correction, Sept. 29

The original version of this story misstated the nature of Target’s refillable packaging program. While it sells select products in refillable packaging, customers cannot refill them in stores.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com