New Rules Pending for Reuse And How Movers in This Space Are Doing

“The basic concept of reusable cups is familiar. This is how most of us consume beverages at home and in restaurants. In recent years, however, new, innovative, large-scale systems for reusable cups have emerged,” Oceana says.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

May 16, 2024

5 Min Read
YAY Media AS / Alamy Stock Photo

Reuse and refillable packaging models could cut plastic pollution by about 70 percent according to a UN report, and a recent Oceana analysis, compiling data from multiple resources, adds more dimension to the case for reuse. The authors name leading consumer goods companies and others turning to these circular options and call on governments to take the work further. They go on to present science-based scenarios asserting that recycling will not fix the plastic pollution problem.

“The basic concept of reusable cups is familiar. This is how most of us consume beverages at home and in restaurants. In recent years, however, new, innovative, large-scale systems for reusable cups have emerged,” Oceana says.

These systems are making their way into cinemas, airports, shopping centers, and restaurants. They have come online at concert halls and stadiums. Some early adopters report they recover almost all of the  containers.  Still, scaling has been slow in manty parts of the world, but proponents see potential for huge impact.

A 10 percent bump in reusable packaging by 2030 could eliminate over 1 trillion single-use plastic bottles and cups and keep 153 billion containers from flowing into oceans and waterways, the authors say. And depending on the materials and how they are engineered, bottles can be used up to 50 times and cups over 100 times.

Coca-Cola, who sold the equivalent of 52 billion 500-ml reusable bottles in 2022, has committed to increasing its reusable packaging from 14 percent to 25 percent by 2030 while Pepsi promises a hike from 10 percent to 20 percent by that same year.

And now Repurpose Global, a sustainability platform, is pouring $1 million into reuse and refill solutions, targeting grocery, food services and delivery, e-commerce, and brick and mortar stores.

“Governments can also make this shift happen by passing legislation and implementing regulations to mandate an increase in reusable packaging and by ensuring that the proposed international treaty on plastic pollution includes legally binding targets for reusable packaging,” Oceana says.

As the impetus for reuse gains momentum, so does the push for recycling single-use plastics. But Oceana, like other skeptics, points to persistently low plastics recycling rates, with packaging among the largest contributors to the waste pile up. As recycling infrastructure is relatively slow to ramp up, single-use packaging production explodes. Manufacturers will crank out roughly 15 trillion disposable plastic beverage containers between 2023 and 2030, according to research.

Eunomia concludes that even if the top five beverage companies meet their recycling targets, they will only keep seven percent less bottles from infiltrating waterways.

Authors of the Oceana study push on for the reuse alternative by pointing to beverage icon Coca-Cola who reports that 93 percent of its refillable bottles are collected for recirculation and managed in refillable systems, with environmental payoffs. Reusable beverage packaging can have the lowest carbon footprint of any packaging option, the corporation publicly stated. Coca-Cola bottler FEMSA reports that its refillable PET bottles’ greenhouse gases are up to 47 percent lower than their single-use counterpart. Coca Cola Andina, a South American bottler, reports 48.2 percent lower emissions.

Global beer companies are buying into reusables too. Anheuser-Busch and Heineken as of lately have sold about 35 percent and 38 percent of their brew, respectively, in returnable glass bottles.

TURN and r.World are among top companies developing reuse systems with end-to-end services including deliveries, pick-ups, collection bins, washing, and inventory management. As a complementary service, TURN and r.World deliver an app that users tap into to earn rewards for returning cups.

In 2023 Coca-Cola announced plans to team with r.World to bring its reusable cup system to U.S. venues. And through TURN’s partnership with Live Nation, refillable cups have already made their way to festivals and venues around the country. 

“We believe it’s inevitable that single use will be made obsolete. To accelerate this transition, we’ve seen that rewarding people for reuse is particularly powerful,” says Ryan Everton, founder, TURN.

“Through our partnerships, we average over 90 percent return rates. We are rapidly scaling our solution across North America, Australasia, and into Europe next year,” Everton says.

Looking at the bigger picture, refillables have a way to go if the aim is to hit mainstream status. They comprise just over 6 percent of non-alcoholic ready-to-drink containers. Though some parts of the world have made these models work, at scale.  About 170 countries operate refillable systems, with Ethiopia, the Philippines, Germany, and Nicaragua leading the way with over 30 percent market share by volume, reports Oceana.

Refillables hold at least 10 percent market share in seven of the top 20 global non-alcoholic beverage markets, while these models fall well below that mark in United States, Canada, Indonesia, and other regions.

The reasons these systems are slow to take off appear to be inefficient infrastructure, high startup costs, and lacking funding to get the models off the ground.

Neither Pepsi nor Coca-Cola have shown meaningful headway toward their ambitious goals, and in fact in its 2023 report, Coca-Cola disclosed a 2 percent decline in products sold in refillables since announcing its pledge in 2022. Pepsi did not provide figures in its 2023 sustainability

report.

Oceana points to good news for these challenged models. Refillable bottling systems are becoming more efficient, with methods available to recycle water used for washing and use of solar energy to heat it. Advanced supply chain logistics and software are increasing the efficiency of deliveries and returns. Then there are creative consumer incentives—Coca-Cola Andina has technology that negates the need to return a physical bottle at the time of purchase. Consumers wait until they have accrued a certain number of empty containers before bringing them back and replenishing their stock of ‘virtual bottles’ on the app.

More change is on the horizon, speculates Oceana, especially as policy makers push for rules to either require or facilitate reusable packaging systems.

In Europe, several countries have introduced legally binding plastic reduction and reuse targets. Similar laws are expected to pass across the entire European Union where rules have already been provisionally agreed on, with reuse targets foreseen for beverages packaging among other packaging types. At the same time the UN is negotiating a global treaty to end plastic waste, which is set to conclude by the end of 2024.

Oceana’s message for packaging users: “There is no time like the present for companies to get an early start and gain a competitive edge in this transition.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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