Packaging is at the forefront of everybody's mind as the world looks to a more sustainable future. Within the last few years, companies have been defining their sustainability goals for 2025. These goals include their portfolio to have 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging by 2025. Not only do large consumer goods companies have these specified goals, but many start-ups and smaller brands position themselves to be a more sustainable option to popular beauty brands due to their eco-friendly ingredients and packaging. In cases where recycling is not feasible, reusable packaging can be considered to push towards a circular economy. When narrowing into the reusable aspect of sustainability, the biggest question is whether reusable packaging is more sustainable than single-use packaging. Of course, all circumstances are different, but this article will go into the details of reusable packaging and where it can succeed.  

There have been tremendous amounts of collaboration between companies and industries to push the envelope in sustainable packaging. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is one of these organizations that has begun to define what reuse/refill systems could potentially look like in the future. EMF is looking to create a cohesive plan for recycling, reusing, and composting plastics in different industries across multiple geographical archetypes. All of this work has had help from outside businesses, companies, institutions, and policymakers to get the world closer to a scalable circular economy.

Through workshopping with many brands, EMF has developed four different reuse models to help define the space. These four categories are: refill at home, refill on the go, return from home, return on the go. Advanced recycling is finally here!

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation also lists six benefits to the reuse model, which include:

  1. Compact Products: the approach reduces packaging and transportation costs when the product is manufactured and delivered to the consumer in a concentrated form (example: soap in tablets or other concentrated forms ship less water and uses less packaging when compared to liquid soap in a bottle with a pump)
  2. Deposit and Reward: this approach allows brands to build loyalty among customers and increase retention rates through deposits and rewards
  3. Superior Design: improved user experience with more luxurious and user-friendly packaging because brands can allocate higher budgets to the packaging department since the initial production cost is divided over many uses
  4. Smart Systems: the addition of digital technologies built into refillable packaging for information on user preferences (example: tags, sensors, GPS)
  5. Shared Design: the approach that scaling this model could potentially lead to sharing refillable packaging across brands, industries, or other networks
  6. Customization: accommodating individual consumer needs in the reuse model by letting users play with flavors, customize packaging to make their own, and more

Specifically to the personal care industry, EMF shared examples of products that fall under each of the four reuse categories. Refills at home had the most examples per category. For instance, Humankind has a subscription program for personal care items. The first shipment sends a durable package that the consumer will refill as new product shipments arrive. Refill on the go can be exemplified by the pilot run called "All Things Hair" in Mannia. Consumers can refill their shampoo and conditioner bottles in person and pay per gram of product. This example is an economical refill system pilot for brands like Dove, Sunsilk, and TRESemmé.

Research: Reusable Packaging Model

Zero Waste Europe did a study on reusable packaging vs. single-use packaging. Data came from different in-depth studies of packaging options concerning transportation, recycling, littering, along with multiple life cycle analyses (LCA). With reusable packaging, many factors affect the success of this option, such as the number of reuses, transportation distances, weight, material, and amount of recycled content. A majority of Zero Waste Europe's data concludes that reusable packaging is the most environmentally friendly approach compared to multiple single-use alternatives. In the future, Zero Waste recommends additional research to find what exact properties of reusable packaging make it preferred compared to single-use, in terms of cost and the environment. The reusable business model must be cost-competitive with single-use to be successful, regardless of the environmental footprint. Many business models are beginning to focus on refillable packaging as a legitimate pathway to get the world closer to a circular economy. Companies like Loop and Algramo lead the way to make refillable packaging services attainable for brands and consumers.  

Real World Examples

Loop by TerraCycle is a first-of-its-kind service for reusable packaging. The focus is to create a circular economy for packaging that has difficulty getting recycled. This service is decreasing single-use packaging by assisting some of the largest consumer goods companies. Instead of a single-use package, the consumer's product comes in durable packaging returned to Loop after use. This model is described as the "milkman model" because this service delivers products to the consumer's door while simultaneously picking up empty packages. The empty packaging is then cleaned and refilled with the product. Brands like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Clorox have delivered new, closed-loop packaging options through Loop's online store. Ulta Beauty x Loop is a spin-off to bring consumers beauty products in refillable packaging at Ulta stores. This partnership targets personal and beauty care products with clean ingredients along with waste-free packaging.

As referenced earlier, Algramo is another service that delivers options to add the switch out of single-use packaging. This process utilizes smart packaging and the Algramo phone app. You can scan the products' barcode to refill the container to the amount needed. The innovation is a dispensing machine that fills in-store. In the United States, Clorox Company is driving the work being done with Algramo.

Another brand excelling in the refillable packaging space is L'Occitane. The Eco Recharge Refill stand-up pouches act as refills for their different soaps on the market. The packaging claims to use between 78% and 82% less packaging weight than the initial product (depending on the exact product). Ultimately, this refill causes a reduction of plastic and more efficient transportation.

Similarly, Grove Collaborative notices the discrepancy between the amount of plastic packaging produced and the amount recycled. Grove sells plastic-free, cruelty-free products for different aspects of life directly to your home. An example of their reusable, plastic-free packaging is their hand soap system. You can buy a durable glass soap bottle with a metal pump that is reused for hand soap. The consumer will purchase the concentrated hand soap refill in aluminum bottles to refill the long-lasting glass bottle. Along with this plastic-free packaging, the concentrated formula reduces the amount of water per shipment.

Concluding Thoughts: Reusable Packaging

Consumer behavior is one aspect that will need to change for the model to be successful. For any new concept, consumer behavior must adapt and accept the innovation for it to be successful. Reusable packaging is a potential solution for hard to recycle plastics and packaging. It is vital for a critical mass of consumers to be on board as brands begin to manufacture refillable and reusable packaging. Without participation, this model cannot be scaled and will not be a feasible solution. Wharton (University of Pennsylvania Business School) mentioned that consumers claim to want a more eco-friendly option but do not want to put in extra effort for this once it is available. This refill model could be an efficient approach to sustainable packaging for the eco-conscious consumer while eliminating inconveniences. With the help of eco-friendly packaging and product development from brands and support from large organizations, changes in consumer attitudes towards reusable packaging can lead the way to a sustainable, waste-free future. Reusable packaging will not be the only answer to a circular economy, but this will be a solution for many products. To reiterate, reusable packaging beats single-use packaging when looking at its environmental footprints in most cases. Potential pathways are being laid in different industries to help navigate this transition from single-use to reusable packaging. There is no one correct way to engineer reusable packaging, and we will have begun to see the creativity in package design from brands as they switch over from single-use.