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A Look at Reusable Models: Q&A With Closed Loop Partners’ Georgia Sherwin

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Reusable packaging and product models, from pizza boxes made from rigid plastic, to “bring your own,” are slowly but surely gaining traction. Georgia Sherwin, Closed Loop’s director of Strategic Initiatives & Communications, discusses some of these models, including those that Closed Loop is helping to advance. She touches on the work of 13 leading retailers, who collectively committed more than $15 million to “reinvent” the retail bag. And she shares her take on what’s driving these models, and what to look for to determine their impacts and benefits.

Waste360: Are reuse models making a comeback since COVID? If so, what are you seeing?

Sherwin: Many feared that the COVID-19 pandemic would push climate and sustainability priorities to the back burner, but the opposite proved true. Setbacks on the use of reusable bags and cups were only temporary as the world adjusted, and overall we witnessed an increase in popularity of reusable packaging solutions that alleviate the waste associated with single-use packaging.

We witnessed brands double down on their sustainability efforts, including the implementation of reuse models. To name a few examples of businesses prioritizing circularity amid the pandemic, in 2020 Closed Loop Partners convened 13 leading retailers, including founding partners CVS Health, Target and Walmart, who collectively committed more than $15 million to reinvent the retail bag as part of our Beyond the Bag Initiative to identify, test, and implement innovative design solutions as an alternative to single-use plastic retail bags. More recently, Ulta Beauty joined the initiative as the beauty sector lead partner, further expanding the initiative’s reach and potential for impact. Together, participating retailers represent more than 50,000 stores in the U.S. In February, the initiative announced multiple winning reusable bag solutions, which are now piloting in select CVS Health, Target, and Walmart stores.

Our portfolio company, Algramo, expanded to the U.S. in 2020, working with brand partners like Clorox and Colgate-Palmolive to offer refill services for household cleaning products in reusable packaging, as well as launching in Walmart in Chile. Just Salad, a Closed Loop Partners portfolio company, also announced plans to expand its popular reusable bowl program for digital orders. 

Waste360: Can you illustrate consumer demand’s role in driving change around reuse?

Sherwin: Viral images of a plastic straw lodged in a sea turtle’s beak and of plastic bags choking wildlife have helped galvanize the public against plastic waste, with social media and the press further propelling the subject to front page news. In 2018, “single-use” was even named the word of the year according to Collins Dictionary, and subsequent campaigns by the likes of Greta Thunberg [a Swedish environmental activist] and David Attenborough [a natural historian] captured the world’s attention. This momentum has spurred consumer demand for more sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic, in turn encouraging the growth of reuse models and creating a significant business opportunity.

Waste360: Can you speak to regulatory pressures driving change around reuse? And give examples of new legislation?

Sherwin: The landscape of U.S. policies around materials management is changing rapidly in response to the urgency of the plastic waste challenge. The recent Break Free from Plastics Act of 2021 not only lays the foundation for extended producer responsibility in the U.S., but also incentivizes businesses to create reusable products that can remain in circulation for multiple uses, moving away from single use. These shifts in federal legislation are further bolstered by single-use plastic bans across multiple U.S. states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. Most recently, Washington state fast-tracked its plastics phase-out, with goals to ban single-use bowls, cups, plates, cutlery, straws, polystyrene food containers, thick plastic bags, and helium balloon releases by the end of 2021, four years earlier than its initial 2025 target.

As these regulatory shifts continue to gain traction, it will be critical to move toward a more collaborative and holistic approach across states to create a consistent regulatory environment, as businesses adapt their operations to integrate reuse models and other circular solutions.

Right now, regulations vary by region, and businesses must adapt accordingly. A more holistic approach could help align interests and accelerate consistent educational messaging to advance circularity.

Waste360: What do you see as some of the most interesting reusable packaging models, and/or technologies supporting reuse?

Sherwin: It’s important to recognize that reusable packaging models span multiple typologies and are applicable across various industries, from food to fashion. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to reuse, and different models help meet different needs and contexts.

On one end of the spectrum, there are the low-tech reuse models that rely on a “bring your own approach” to refilling your own durable packaging. On the other end, there are a growing number of tech-enabled reuse systems that facilitate transparency across the lifecycle of a product. Related to this, some models transfer product ownership at sale, while others shift the business model so that users of the packaging become borrowers rather than owners.

We’re particularly interested in the transparency tools that can help power effective reusable packaging systems, building smart systems that provide transparency to the user and useful analytics to the producer––bringing value to both retailers and customers. For example, quick response (QR) codes or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags enable stakeholders to check a reusable product, such as a cup or bag, in and out along its lifespan. This increases visibility and in doing so creates opportunities for incentives for customers to return their packaging.

Waste360: How does one determine a reuse product’s environmental and economic impact/benefits?

Sherwin: Each reuse model is different, and every element of a product’s life cycle needs to be examined to evaluate its social, economic, and environmental impact. Any material selection choice requires tradeoffs and should be considered in the context of what drives toward the best outcome for people, the planet, and business. For example, if evaluating stainless steel as the material of choice, it’s critical to take into account the energy-intensive, high sourcing costs early on in the supply chain, while balancing that with the durability and reusability of the material.

Equally, the accessibility and convenience of reuse models is a key priority. There needs to be cost savings as well as environmental savings. Algramo is one company that is making reuse more affordable. The company’s system not only reduces single-use packaging waste through the use of reusable containers, but it also allows families to buy what they can afford. Through Algramo’s vending machines, customers can choose to purchase the exact quantity of cleaning product they need at bulk pricing, no matter how small the amount, showing how sustainability and affordability can go hand in hand.

Waste360: Tell me about Closed Loop Partners’ investment in Just Salad. Why are you supporting this one model and company?

Sherwin: Just Salad is the first U.S. restaurant chain to carbon label its menu and is also home to the world’s largest reusable bowl program across restaurants. Their pioneering sustainable business practices and ambitious vision for a more circular future aligns with Closed Loop Partners' mission. Together, we can benefit from knowledge sharing and expertise across circular business models, including reuse models. This partnership builds on and complements our existing work in this space through our NextGen Consortium, an industry partnership that advances the design, commercialization, and recovery of sustainable food packaging alternatives.

 

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