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  • Writer's pictureMark Buckley

Rethinking packaging: Unlocking a reuse revolution

Updated: May 27

In our journey towards a circular economy, reusable packaging systems offer one of the most effective routes to tackling plastic waste and pollution. These systems represent a fundamental shift in how we view packaging—from a linear view that they should be used and then disposed of, to a circular approach that values the materials and resources used to create them and strives to extend their utility across many lifetimes.

From returnable beer bottles schemes in Austria and Germany to refillable cosmetics containers offered by some personal care brands, many promising reuse initiatives are already in operation. Although the majority operate on a small scale using fragmented infrastructure, they offer valuable information on the economic and environmental potential of return systems.

Exploring the potential of reuse systems

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent study, ‘Unlocking a reuse revolution: scaling returnable packaging’, looks in depth at business-to-customer returnable reusable packaging systems—where customers buy packaged products and return the packaging for professional cleaning and refilling—for beverages, personal care, fresh food, and food cupboard items.

Carried out in partnership with Systemiq and Eunomia, it models various systems to provide a better understanding of their economic and environmental performance, as well as the key drivers of these outcomes. We use these insights to envision several possible future return systems of varying levels of ambition. Modelling their economic and environmental impacts compared to single use models we find that the potential for reuse systems to reduce environmental harm is immense.

© Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A bold vision for System Change

Our most ambitious scenario, termed ‘System Change’, analyses the impact of a large shift to 40% reuse within a highly shared infrastructure, combined with a 95% return rate. With the inclusion of standardised packaging in the system, and shared sorting, and cleaning facilities - the system is optimised for maximum efficiency.

Our model shows that this bold approach could significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions by 35-69% and reduce water and material use by 45-70% and 45-76%, respectively, depending on the packaging type.¹ Moreover, it would also bring economic advantages: standardised packaging and shared infrastructure would enable optimised storage, transport, sorting, and washing, potentially reducing total costs of returnable beverage and personal care bottles by 6% and 10%, respectively, compared to single-use.²

Every reuse scenario brings substantial environmental gains

These projected outcomes present a compelling vision for both businesses and consumers. However, a shift of this magnitude would be an ambitious undertaking, and it’s likely that any practical system will incorporate elements from different scenarios and vary by sector.

Reassuringly, our models show environmental benefits at all levels analysed, and across almost all indicators. This means substantial environmental progress is achievable even if we fall short of the System Change model. Nonetheless, to reach cost parity with today’s large volume single-use systems, the scale of the larger model is necessary.

Unlocking the reuse revolution

Acknowledging the vast potential of reuse systems is just the beginning. To turn vision into reality, we need extensive collaboration between a wide range of stakeholders, including businesses, policymakers, financial institutions, and civil society.

It’s only through this collective effort—sharing knowledge, combining resources, and coordinating action—that significant progress towards comprehensive reuse systems can be made. The plastics industry has a critical role to play here, leveraging its expertise to optimize materials to ensure quality, durability, and functionality of reusable packaging across all applications.

An enabling policy framework is also essential to create a fair playing field, encourage industry-wide collaboration, de-risk early investments, and establish the right incentives.

The EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) is well-placed to fulfil this role, but more ambitious mandatory targets will be needed to drive progress at the scale required.

Advancing towards a circular future

The time for incremental progress has passed. To ignite a true revolution in reuse, we need action at every level—from individual choice to international policy. Only in this way can we make our vision of a world where resources circulate with minimal waste, maximum value, and optimal respect for our shared environment, a reality.

¹ Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2023), Unlocking a reuse revolution: scaling returnable packaging.

² Ibid.

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