The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says it is "time for a reuse revolution" for packaging, according to a new report.
The study was developed in partnership with Systemiq and Eunomia, with input from more than 60 organizations including the European Investment Bank, national governments, reuse experts, and major brands and consumer brands such as Danone, Nestlé, PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever.
The EMF study uses advanced modeling to quantify the performance of use-and-return models across three theoretical scenarios, using France as a representative geography.
It focused on four returnable packaging applications and their single-use equivalents: beverages, personal care, fresh food and shelf-stable cupboard food items. The three scenarios considered are system change, representing a scaled, shared, and standardized return system; a collaborative approach using an established reuse system with potential to scale further; and a fragmented effort with a reuse system operating only at low scales.
Those scenarios were then characterized according to three system variables: their scale and shared infrastructure; the type of packaging system; and the return rate and average number of loops.
In the best-case scenario, system change, reuse packaging has around 40 percent market share, infrastructure is highly shared, packaging is pooled, and return rate is 95 percent. That will enable packaging to be reused about 15 times.
Under the collaborative approach scenario, the market share would be around 10 percent, there is some sharing of infrastructure. Pooled access to packaging would result in a 90 percent return rate, with around 10 loops.
In the fragmented effort scenario, the market share is 2 percent, infrastructure is fragmented, packaging is unique for each product, and the return rate is 80 percent, allowing for only five loops.
Reuse can be cost competitive with single-use packaging under the system change scenario. In this best-case scenario, costs for returnable beverage bottles are 6 percent lower than single-use, and 10 percent cheaper for personal care bottles. For fresh food and stable food cupboard applications, the system change scenario is only between 1 percent and 3 percent more expensive.
Under a fragmented effort scenario, on the other hand, returnable beverage bottles are 97 percent more expensive, with personal care bottles 61 percent more expensive. Fresh food packaging would be 123 percent more expensive and food cupboard items at 141 percent.
In terms of environmental impact, the system change scenario reduces greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 35 percent to 69 percent across applications, and material use by 45 percent to 75 percent.
"Scaling reuse will be a major transition and won't happen overnight," said Sander Defruyt, plastics initiative lead at EMF. "This analytical study gives us greater insight into the key drivers that affect the environmental and economic performance of return systems. Yet, it doesn't have all the answers.
"We now need to see more research and groundwork in specific geographies and sectors to determine the best course of action and make return models at scale a reality," Defruyt said.
To drive global change, the foundation is calling on leaders across the private, public and finance sectors, to take a fresh approach to expand a reuse through shared infrastructure and packaging standardization. It also says the supply chain must work collaboratively to reach high return rates. Its research suggests that without a significant shift towards reuse, worldwide virgin plastic use in packaging is unlikely to decrease below today's levels before 2050.