With the average consumer wanting a quick convenient product with no-hassle, can reusable or refillable packages be incorporated into the market?
The packaging industry has grown exponentially since the refillable glass bottles of milk delivered door to door, but maybe we had the right idea back then. Current packaging is typically, single-use disposable plastics or boxes that ultimately end up in a landfill or recovered at a low rate. The packaging waste problem is growing as landfills are filling up and more and more plastics are becoming marine litter detrimentally harming ecosystems and species. For these reasons and many others, a reusable/refillable package becomes an attractive alternative, provided the infrastructure is in place for the concept to succeed.
Reusable packages can reduce waste while also reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water consumption, and fossil fuel consumption throughout the package’s lifecycle. According to the website Refillables.org, life cycle assessments (LCAs) conducted comparing disposable and reusable beverage containers show savings in nearly all indicators (air pollution, water pollution, solid waste, and energy). The LCAs compared plastic disposable vs. plastic reusable, glass disposable vs. glass reusable, and plastic reusable vs. glass reusable. The results show that reusable PET bottles are preferred over reusable glass bottles most likely because of the lighter-weight plastic. While all these studies focused on beverage containers, it seems the knowledge can be applied on a wider scale.
To test the sustainability of reusable packaging as a broader term, various scenarios were modeled and analyzed with EcoImpact-COMPASS. For these comparisons it was assumed that the reusable packages are slightly heavier (10 grams) to be more durable as well as reused 10 times. The way this is factored into EcoImpact-COMPASS is through the functional unit and total capacity of the packaging system. For the disposable, single-use case the package holds only 1 item, but the reusable package holds 10 items because that one package will be used to hold product 10 times.
These impacts are to show that creating reusable packages reduces the overall amount of materials required to create the packaging. With these models, the impacts of washing the packaging to be reused are not factored in, but we can assume they would be minimal compared to the material/manufacturing impact required to create a whole new package.
If we compare heavier disposable glass containers to disposable PET containers, it seems generally that the PET is a better option with an exception being fossil fuel consumption. Both bars show a significantly higher impact than the reusable glass and PET containers. On average, the reusable containers show a reduction of about 90% across all the indicators shown most likely because of the reduction in material and energy needed to create only 1 reusable package as compared to 10 disposable packages.
This comparison is not to say that reusable packaging is always the best option because the infrastructure and feasibility of this concept is the biggest factor. If the consumers of the product cannot easily make it to a refill station then the energy required for them to get more product is too great for the payoff and could actually increase the environmental impact especially if the consumer is driving long distances. A technology such as Replenish makes it easier for consumers to access refills through online shopping. The soaps and household cleaners are concentrated into pods that can be attached to a reusable plastic container and mixed with water out of the consumer’s tap. This effectively saves energy required to ship products as the concentrated pods are much lighter without water and reduces the amount of waste sent to the landfill over the life cycle of the product because the main container is reused with just the pods being disposed. Walmart’s CleanPath has taken advantage of this technology and are seeing improvements in many aspects including sustainability, cost to the customer, and brand loyalty.
Overall, reusable packaging can be a viable option depending on the circumstances and the feasibility of a refill station or another technology. Implementing reusable packages can dramatically decrease the environmental impact across many aspects of the product’s lifecycle including greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and fossil fuel consumption. Various scenarios can be modeled using EcoImpact-COMPASS to show the possible benefits and drawbacks of reusable packages specific to your company. With the power to model transport, cost, and material reductions the tool will provide results that can be incorporated into data-driven decisions across the supply chain.