The New Reuse Economy Spurred by Plastic Pollution and Local Entrepreneurs
May 18, 2022
The world is waking up to the fact that our current Throw-Away Economy is not compatible with living on a finite planet. Rather than treating people and the planet as disposable, we need to move to a New Reuse Economy where consumer products are delivered in reusable packaging made from justly produced, sustainable and non-toxic materials.
Today, about 15% of wood harvested, 22% of aluminum mined, 40% of plastic created, and 50% of glass produced goes primarily to making single-use packaging that is used in a matter of minutes before it gets trashed, recycled, or littered. This results in the unnecessary extraction of precious natural resources on the front end while creating significant amounts of waste and pollution on the back end.
Fortunately, we are beginning to see a New Reuse Economy emerge. Reuse is becoming the foundation for a just, non-toxic circular economy, one that stewards the resources we take from the planet and keeps them in closed, regional loops for as long as possible – minimizing natural resource extraction, preventing waste and pollution, and creating local economic opportunities and jobs.
After big brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, Nestles, and McDonalds were flagged as top polluters in the Break Free From Plastic movement’s plastic litter audits for several years running, we are finally seeing some large corporations announce efforts to increase reusable. For example, Coca-Cola recently announced that, by 2030, 25% of its bottles would be refillable worldwide (they were at 16% as of 2020).
Coca-Cola and other big brands like Nestles and Unilever are participating in Loop™, a reusable package shopping system currently operating in France and the UK that provides consumers with products in reusable containers delivered to their homes via online shopping or direct to consumers at the grocery store. Loop kiosks are also now available in Krogers in the Portland, Oregon area and Duane Reades stores in the greater New York metro area. Loop is also partnering with the fast food brands Burger King, Mcdonald's, and Tim Hortons to give customers the option to take out in returnable reusable packaging.
At Upstream, we want to see reuse systems move to truly safe and sustainable materials. Certain plastics are known to be inherently toxic and recycled plastic can contain many harmful chemicals. Reusable products made from materials like aluminum or stainless steel can contain toxic chemicals in resin linings and phthalate-laden gaskets and closures. For this reason, we urge companies innovating in the reusable space to pay greater attention to the toxics that may be contained in their materials and opt for non-toxic solutions.
We are also seeing an exciting array of innovative and visionary startups focused on reuse with a focus on better design and more convenience. Dispatch Goods, for example, is a reuse service company in Northern California that partners with restaurants to provide meals in insulated reusable stainless steel food containers that are easy for customers to return. They are growing and scaling largely because returning containers is convenient (consumers can schedule at home collection by text) and because the containers are durable and keep foods hot or cold. Dispatch Goods containers have a near 100% return rate.
Many of the startup companies that partner with local cafes and restaurants to provide customers with take-out in reusables use cost as an incentive for return. Some, like Vessel in Boulder and Muuse in Singapore and Toronto, operate on a lending library system where customers borrow a cup or container and are charged if they fail to return it. Others – like AgainAgain in New Zealand, Recircle in Switzerland, and RECUP in Germany – charge customers a refundable deposit to incentivize the return. Another model, exemplified by Green To Go in Durham and GoBox in Portland, taps into the green purchasing behaviors of segments of the market by offering a membership model.
It is also important that reusables actually provide true environmental benefits. For reusables to deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, they need to be used an adequate number of times. Yet thick PET shopping bags sold as reusables in California and Starbucks $1 plastic reusable cups are examples of plastic reusables that have been treated as disposable by many customers – unlike nylon and cloth bags or stainless steel cups. Design and material choice are important in terms of how consumers treat the product.
We are excited about the great economic opportunity associated with reuse. Systems that provide infrastructure to serve many companies and accommodate many types of reusable packaging can help reuse scale in major metropolitan areas. From the collection of dirty reusables from bins or kiosks, to the washing and sanitizing systems, to the refilling and/or restocking processes, and the redistribution of clean reusables – the reuse infrastructure can provide good local jobs and create a New Reuse Economy that replaces the throw-away consumption model.