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Collaboration Key to Boosting Reusable Packaging: Studies Find


"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" goes beyond a memorable phrase—it outlines a crucial waste management hierarchy. Starting with reduction as the top priority, it suggests that reusing materials, especially plastic packaging, is the next most effective method for minimizing waste. However, this approach is notably underutilized. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that a mere 2% of packaging from companies committed to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is reusable, a statistic that hasn't changed since the initiative began in 2018.


Recent studies highlight the significant environmental benefits of embracing reusable packaging, emphasizing it as essential in addressing the plastic waste crisis. The 2023 "Unlocking a Reuse Revolution: Scaling Reusable Packaging" report by EMF and Eunomia explores the hurdles and potential of expanding reusable packaging systems for a transformative shift. Meanwhile, Oceana's "Refill Again" report sheds light on the extent of plastic pollution and the positive effects of reusables, focusing specifically on beverage containers which are a major source of litter in aquatic settings.


Both pieces of research advocate for a model where consumers buy products in reusable containers and return them for cleaning and refilling. While EMF's analysis covers a broad range of single-use packaging applications, from food to personal care, Oceana zeroes in on plastic drink cups and bottles, pointing out their prevalence as litter in various water bodies.


Despite their different focuses, both reports converge on several key insights. A standout finding is that returnable plastic packaging significantly outperforms single-use plastic in nearly all environmental impact assessments, according to the EMF. Another critical observation is the ineffectiveness of recycling as a solution to the plastic dilemma. Oceana highlights that a mere 9% of all plastics made since the 1950s have been recycled, with the vast majority either burned, buried in landfills, or discarded into the environment.


Moreover, Oceana raises concerns that recycling processes may worsen pollution by discharging vast amounts of microplastics into our water systems. The organization also challenges the notion that increasing the recycled content in products will ensure their recovery and prevent them from polluting the oceans.


Both reports underscore the necessity of collaboration for achieving significant progress in combating plastic pollution. The EMF emphasizes that to make reuse systems viable on a large scale, cooperation across sectors is indispensable.


Key players in driving this change include Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands, particularly within the beverage sector, identified by Oceana as crucial in minimizing plastic waste in aquatic environments. Policymakers at local, national, and international levels, along with financial institutions, are also highlighted as vital for fostering the conditions and providing the investment needed to develop the infrastructure for widespread reuse initiatives.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) has proposed three scenarios to explore the future of reusable packaging: fragmented efforts, a unified collaborative approach, and a total system overhaul. The report clearly favors a complete system change, envisioning a system where infrastructure is universally shared, including sorting and cleaning facilities, transportation, and operational standards. This approach not only advocates for the use of standardized, shared packaging but also emphasizes the need for a collaborative mindset across all stakeholders.


According to the EMF, adopting this comprehensive change could lead to more than a 20% reduction in the amount of plastic entering our oceans annually by 2040. The benefits extend beyond reducing plastic pollution; they include significant cuts in the consumption of new plastic, a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 35% to 69% for certain types of packaging, and a 30% to 70% reduction in water usage. The projected decrease in plastic volume ranges from 54% to 76%, alongside a potential reduction in waste generation by up to 90%.


An interesting highlight from the EMF's findings is that reusable packaging surpasses single-use options in environmental performance, even when the latter is made entirely from recycled materials. This superiority holds true across the board, except in the case of single-use flexible packaging, which may have a lower carbon footprint due to its lightweight nature.


Oceana's research brings to light the significant impact that increasing reusable packaging could have. By boosting the use of reusables by just 10% by 2030, we could prevent the equivalent of more than a trillion single-use plastic bottles and cups from being produced, with up to 153 billion fewer of these items contaminating our oceans and rivers.


However, the shift towards reusable packaging has been slow, suggesting a challenging path to achieving these ambitious targets. To expedite progress, Oceana's "Refill Again" campaign calls on companies in the beverage industry to commit to a minimum 10% increase in their use of reusable packaging. It also emphasizes the need for these companies to invest in marketing and support mechanisms to ensure these goals are met.


Echoing this sentiment, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's "Unlocking a Reuse Revolution" provides stakeholders with actionable steps to harness the potential of returnable systems fully. It advocates for a radical rethink of current practices, encouraging the initiation of collaborative efforts that involve multiple brands and retailers. The recommendation is to start small and then scale these efforts widely across different products, sectors, and regions to make reusable packaging a global standard.

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