Much better recycling is frequently touted as a key to cutting pollution from plastics waste, but some governments and business groups are starting to turn their attention to reusable packaging.
In the U.S. it remains a niche alternative, but it's beginning to show up in laws elsewhere.
Norway, for example, exempts reusables from a tax on new beverage packaging and France plans to ban disposables for on-site dining in some restaurants.
As well, Chile in May passed what advocates say may be the strongest national law, mandating that fast-food outlets switch to reusables for dine-in and to compostable packaging for takeout. It's part of broad plastics legislation there.
Some business groups, like the SA Plastics Pact in South Africa, are also taking a look. That group, which includes many plastics companies and consumer brands, plans a formal study of the environmental impacts of reusable packaging and believes it could be a positive.
Both the Chilean and South African situations were discussed on a recent webinar sponsored by the U.N. Environment Programme to look at newer approaches and the role of life cycle assessments in reducing marine litter and plastics in the environment.
In Chile, the government's 2018 ban on plastic bags became a driver for the reusable and compostable provisions in its 2021 plastics law, as the bag ban led to questions about the impact of other kinds of bags, said Guillermo González Caballero, head of the circular economy office in Chile's Ministry of the Environment.
"One thing that we learned after the banning of plastic bags, that we learned from life cycle assessment studies, is that it's not necessarily a good idea to just move from plastic to another material," he said. "Because when you look at it from a life cycle assessment, all those other materials also have their impacts."
But rather than keep a status quo of single-use packaging and have a debate about what's the best of those choices, he said Chile wanted to go in a different direction to control litter and packaging waste from fast-food restaurants.
They must use only reusables on dine-in service and compostables for takeout, he said.
"It's not only moving away from plastics but it's moving away from disposable items of any material, which is another major, major breakthrough," he said.
The government has been focused on plastics because its research shows that only 4.4 percent of plastic's uses are circular, he said.
Chile formed its own national plastics pact in 2019, which the government joined, and at the time it was the third country in the world to form a pact after the United Kingdom and France, he said.
The country's new plastics law includes extended producer responsibility provisions that require industry to help fund residential collection covering 80 percent of Chile by 2035, he said.