The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has published an update on the progress signatories to its global commitment on plastics are making. The scheme boasts some of the world’s largest packaged food companies but, when it comes to stripping out single-use packaging and rolling out reuse and refill systems, the figures are nothing to crow about. 

Just 1.9% of the packaging used by FMCG brands and retailers, both food and non-food, is reusable. “Everything elimination-related is mainly driven by substitution to other materials rather than really fundamentally redesigning the system to reduce the need for packaging in the first place,” the foundation’s Sander Defruyt told The Financial Times

Look around the globe and there are hundreds of pilots: from refill and return on-the-go systems in stores to those that deliver and collect from home – systems which shift ownership of the packaging from consumer to retailer, brand or third party. Those have become more popular as grocery shopping shifts online and brands dabble in direct-to-consumer models. Some say the pandemic has even created a “sweet spot” for such approaches.

The likes of Carrefour, Kroger, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever have all cracked on with reusable packaging projects. In July, Tesco also made its “biggest move” into reusable packaging. The scheme – in partnership with TerraCycle’s Loop, in which packaging is used, collected, cleaned and refilled again and again – has already delivered thousands of orders to 453 different towns and cities in mainland Britain. “It’s a big step for Tesco and more generally,” says the retailer’s head of campaigns for packaging and food waste Tony McElroy. “We are working at pace and scale on this issue.”

There has been concern Covid-19 could have killed off initiatives to reduce plastic packaging. As the virus took hold, plastic all of a sudden became popular again. Coffee-shop chains including Costa, now owned by Coca-Cola, stopped accepting reusable cups and went back to disposables out of an “abundance of caution”. Tesco reported customers shifting back to fruit and vegetables sold in plastic packaging.

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Purveyors of plastic spied an opportunity. Single-use was safest, so they claimed, taking aim at what they felt were ill-thought regulations to curb plastic pollution. NGOs fretted over what to do. “I don’t think anyone’s open to listening to a bunch of environmentalists,” an experienced campaigner told this correspondent in mid-March.

Pilots continuing, despite Covid-19

However, while Covid-19 is still spreading, concerns over its impact on the war against disposable packaging have subsided. Food companies have continued to roll out small, but high-profile pilots, as reusables turn full circle – from green to grubby and back again. “It could be said Covid has actually inspired new thinking around ‘return from home’ and ‘return on-the-go’ categories,” says Louise Edge, global corporate campaigner at Greenpeace.

While consumer-driven reuse models, when people bring their own packaging, have undoubtedly suffered, those running systems that collect and clean the packaging have seen few ill-effects. RePack, based in Finland, which replaces single-use packaging in e-commerce with reusable packaging customers can return to be reused, has scaled up operations to over 120 brands across 17 countries, including launching in North America with CanadaPost. The target is 200 brands.

Tom Szaky, CEO at TerraCycle, reckons his Loop system could be in up to 1,000 US stores come the end of next year. US retailers Kroger and Walgreens have been testing the online system for a year and are now preparing to launch in-store early next year at 27 sites and quarter two at 100 sites respectively. Shoppers in France will soon be buying products from hundreds of stores without need for disposable packaging. Carrefour is expanding the reach of its e-commerce model for reusables from 5,000 to 125,000 shoppers.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates globally replacing 20% of single-use packaging with reusable alternatives offers a business opportunity of at least US$10bn. As the system integrates more intimately with a retailer’s online and in-store operations the “clunkiness” of the testing platform disappears, Szaky says. People can shop for more products, at better prices and alongside single-use.

Szaky says Loop is about to announce with another retailer in France. It’s already launched in the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan and Germany – and in each case with the “number one retailer”.

At Tesco, McElroy says the Loop trial is “the first opportunity for many customers to try out shopping this way”, he explains. “The scale is unlike anything we have done before. It’s convenient, accessible and offers a range of products.” Szaky, who says the results so far have been “incredible … better than the US, better than France”, insists brands need to take convenience extremely seriously because they’re up against a powerful alternative. “The gold standard of convenience is throwing [packaging] in the garbage. We have to make reuse feel as convenient as possible: buy anywhere and return anywhere.”

The move by McDonald’s to join Loop is significant. Coffee cups from the burger chain could, for example, be returned to a Tesco, or Heinz ketchup bottles and Danone yoghurt pots handed over when a consumer heads for a burger. But Chris Sherwin, founder director at consultants Reboot says: “Reuse or refill generally doesn’t work on altruism alone. I think brands often pick the wrong model and then dismiss reuse entirely.”

Research being carried at Sheffield University should help. There, experts at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures have been awarded funding to look at what materials are best for reusables, as well as when, where and how consumers are willing to reuse, plus how best to communicate all this. They want to publish guidance for businesses so they can select the right system. Sometimes reuse might not be the most sustainable option either. Generally it is, but there are grey areas. “Calculations are still required,” says Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder at Circuthon Consulting. “There is a huge buzz around refill as it’s seen as critical to lower carbon footprints.”

Grantham will also be conducting life cycle analyses of reuse versus single-use, with the focus very much on food. “It presents the most challenges,” says Sarah Greenwood, the Centre’s packaging technology leader. “Crack food and you can crack the others.” Previous research by the team looked at categories where the switch from single-use could be most seamless. They identified a “cluster” of product packaging that people are most likely to reuse. These were for items where there is already a “precedence set”, they wrote in a recent paper. Milk and soft drinks, coffee refills and biscuits were among them.
Szaky says Loop is producing an “absurd” amount of insight on consumer thinking and behaviour. “It’s almost nauseating,” he says. But it’s all vital in budging behaviour. Has Covid had an effect? It’s hard to tell given the diversity and number of schemes. One of the most recent surveys, commissioned by Brand Legacy, asked 1,000 UK consumers whether their behaviours have changed during the pandemic: 17% said they ‘used refill packs to reduce packaging waste’ less often during lockdown, compared to 9% who did so more often. This was likely driven by pragmatism, says Brand Legacy, such as the speed of completing the shop, availability and price. Health concerns about keeping the food wrapped could also have played a part, though.

Industry is working to reassure customers about reuse. At a concept store in Leeds in northern England, Asda has refill machines that operate without customers having to handle the bottles. The touch screens also have a protective anti-bacterial coating. PepsiCo is involved in the trial with its Quaker products. “Asda deserves a lot of credit for making this launch happen amidst all the challenges that coronavirus presented this year,” PepsiCo general manager for nutrition Angela White says.

Tesco and Asda pushed back their launches by a few months yet still managed to get going in the eye of the pandemic. The delay to many pilots had more to do with up-front issues like range restrictions than hygiene concerns, suggests Sara Wingstrand, programme manager for innovation at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We need ambitious, massive pilots and a lot of them because we need to crack this,” says Wingstrand, who talks of billions of ideas, millions of tests and thousands of pilots. It’s a case of “go big or go home”, she adds.

Packhub, a consultancy, tracks launches: its database shows refill/reuse launches are up 68% year-on-year. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports across their packaged goods signatories – which include six of the top 10 FMCG companies globally by revenue – 42% are piloting reuse models, but by 2025 this will be 61%. 

Unilever has nine pilots up and running across the globe, while Nestlé wants to hit 20 by 2025 across categories including coffee, water, ice cream, powdered beverages and pet care. One of the most recent is with Czech Republic tech start-up MiWa in Switzerland, launched in May as Covid-19 cases in Europe spiked. People still needed cat food and coffee and were content to buy it in reusable packaging. Sales from the dispensers have been “higher than expected”, says a Nestlé spokesperson. A trial in Chile, to deliver its Purina pet brand in bulk to customers, is also proving popular. “We are already seeing repurchase, which is the clearest indication that the satisfaction level is high.”

NGO dissatisfaction

All this activity hasn’t left everyone purring though. “In terms of reuse targets and solid investments in a large-scale shift to reuse there has been close to zero progress,” reckons Greenpeace’s Edge. According to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Danone is best in class among the global food brands, with 4.3% of its 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging classified as reusable. Coca-Cola comes next with 3% of almost 3m tonnes, followed by Nestlé’s 1% of 1.5m tonnes. Of the 2.7m tonnes or so of plastic packaging used by PepsiCo, Mars, Mondelez and Kellogg less than 1% is reusable. Unilever didn’t report. 

Credit to those publishing figures but critics point to a lack of targets on reusables. One of the few to have set one is Mars, which wants to run ten trials by 2025. Still, in terms of volumes, corporate commitments to date have generally bundled reusable packaging together with recyclable and compostable; the focus has been on cheaper, quicker, easier and less intrusive wins, like switching to different materials or higher levels of recycled content. That isn’t the way to solve the plastic pollution problem, say campaigners.

Not one of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s signatories has set a target to deliver specific volumes of products or revenues via reuse models. There are rumours the UK scheme, the Plastics Pact run by the charity WRAP, could be about to add a reuse and refill target: 25% of all packaging sold by its signatories by 2030, just-Food understands. From 1.9% to 25% represents a “massive” jump, says Reboot’s Sherwin. The question brands need to be asking, adds EMF’s Wingstrand, is: how can we rethink not just the packaging but the product and the business model?

At the pandemic’s outset, plastic lobby groups leaned hard on regulators to rethink some of the bans and policies that are arriving thick and fast. This was effective in some US cities and states (which paused plans for plastic-bag bans for instance) but was shrugged off by The European Commission. Emboldened by its single-use plastics directive, which member states are busily transposing, it’s now looking to a review of the packaging and packaging waste directive. NGOs like Zero Waste Europe will be pushing for reuse targets of at least 50-60%, and perhaps higher for sectors where there are successful models already in place at scale – like drinks. 

Legislation would focus minds and level the playing field, says Nusa Urbanicic, campaigns director at Changing Markets Foundation. “I’m worried they are doing [the reuse trials] to get good headlines.” Brands are less averse to regulation than some might think – especially if it’s an area where they sense consumer pressure is unstoppable and they are struggling to justify higher costs. Switching from single-use plastic ticks both those boxes. Nick Gamble, commercial director at soft-drinks group Vimto UK, cites Germany where “recycling targets and regulations have encouraged reuse. We’d like to see similar progress within the UK and the international markets in which we operate”.

“There was a huge amount of work to do”

Consumers and campaigners still think brands are dragging their feet – the pace looking in from the outside certainly seems sluggish. But, claims Loop’s Szaky, behind the scenes it is “blistering”. What’s often forgotten is these schemes – especially if they’re rethinking products and business models rather than simply substituting one single-use packaging for another – won’t happen overnight.

Tesco first started its discussions with Loop two years ago. “There was a lot involved in getting this right,” McElroy says. Vimto says it took 12 months from start to store for the cordial refill trial it’s running with Asda. “There was a huge amount of work to do,” says Gamble. “We have to keep shelf-life and product safety front of mind, which can add some logistical challenges.” Its bottled squash is perfectly “ambient stable” and commercially sterile because the packaging and filling environment is “very closely controlled”, he explains. The refills on the other hand are done in an open area: “[…] to maintain optimum quality we have advised it’s kept refrigerated and consumed within seven days of dispense.” This mightn’t go down well with shoppers used to storing squash for weeks.

Whether consumers can be bothered with all this is moot. Eight in ten of Asda’s customers think it’s the responsibility of the supermarket to do something about single-use plastic. However, with lockdowns and lower consumption on-the-go, the pandemic will have brought more packaging than ever into homes. “For any solution we put in place to be successful, we need consumers to get on-board and develop new habits,” says PepsiCo’s White. This is something Sheffield University’s Greenwood and the behavioural specialists in her team will be looking at closely. She fancies the 1.9% figure from The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is on the high side. “That’s our challenge,” Greenwood says. “How do we mainstream this?”