Innovations in reusable packaging need a playbook. Here’s why

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tom Szaky, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, TerraCycle & Erin Simon, Head, Plastic Waste and Business, World Wildlife Fund


  • COVID-19 has exacerbated our reliance on single-use plastic and compounded a global waste crisis.
  • The Future of Consumption Platform’s Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative seeks to empower consumers to access affordable, convenient and sustainable alternatives to single-use.
  • We need cross-sector consensus to define the standards of reusable packaging so businesses can innovate and scale-up solutions.

Over the past year, the issue of plastic pollution and waste has come to the forefront of public attention. Awareness had been building in the years preceding COVID-19 – the magnitude of the crisis, known to scientists and researchers for decades, finally became part of the public consciousness as predictions there will be “more plastic than fish in the ocean” and reports of microplastic in 94% of American tap water samples went mainstream.

We now know that less than 9% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled, 8-12 metric tons of plastic pour into the world’s oceans every year, and global economies stand to lose out on trillions of dollars annually from damages sustained by marine plastic.

COVID-19 has made matters worse by causing a spike in single-use plastics and prompting retailers to ban reusables over safety concerns. Waste volumes are up 30% on the previous year, adding substantial pressure to an already-struggling recycling infrastructure.

Our society has a longstanding relationship and dependency on single-use. Businesses and consumers alike are accustomed to its virtues of cost and convenience, and disposable products can serve essential purposes such as keeping hospitals safe, preventing food waste, and making everyday items accessible to more people than ever before. Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfX0%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1352208328332603393&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.weforum.org%2Fagenda%2F2021%2F04%2Fplastic-waste-reuse-circular-playbook%2F&sessionId=d60152751885a6a942f8108e491ef8375a5a4b8d&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ff2e7cf%3A1618526400629&width=550px

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

Because of this reliance and focus on a system that takes, makes, and wastes products after one use, guidelines or blueprints for viable, sustainable alternatives don’t exist. Without this foundation, circular reuse models cannot effectively implement or accelerate for impact.

But there’s a case for doing so. Reuse systems can reduce plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and are estimated to present a $10 billion business opportunity if only 20% of single-use packaging today were converted to reuse.

Innovative solutions to single-use

In order to innovate and add value for businesses and consumers through a transition to reuse, we must answer the question: how can we continue to deliver what the world wants and needs out of our products today, without the waste?

Terracycle’s Loop™ model seeks to lead with this intention by making reusable packaging just as convenient and affordable as the single-use lifestyle products to which we’re deeply accustomed. While starting with a focus on consumer goods items like food and beauty products, Loop is also working to accelerate reuse in other high-consumption industries such as quick service restaurants, textiles and business-to-business.

While Terracycle is on the frontier of putting reuse into practice, it cannot be emphasized enough that no one group or sector can bring reuse to life.

To rapidly and effectively accelerate reuse, we must build consensus across sectors on basic definitions and standards for reuse: what exactly makes something reusable, and are there products that absolutely must be single-use? If so, how do we ensure they are recycled as opposed to landfilled, and whose responsibility is this? What safety requirements are necessary to ensure human health and well-being, and how do we measure impact five years from now or 50 years from now?

We need this groundwork in order to create the conditions to enable companies and governments to enact, evolve and usher in a new model that will benefit people, nature, and their bottom line.

Empowering consumers to access reusable alternatives

Far from hindering innovation, such a comprehensive, supportive set of guardrails would clearly establish the enabling conditions for success. And for this new innovation we have the opportunity to shape what success looks like. This imperative is the spark for the Future of Consumption Platform’s Consumers Beyond Disposability (CBD) initiative of the World Economic Forum, which sets out a vision for reuse that is inclusive, affordable and sustainable.

CBD’s member companies represent every link of the production and consumption chain, and are helping chart the path forward by co-developing toolkits and resources that outline best practices for cities, safety, and reusable design.

CBD co-chair World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched ReSource: Plastic in 2019 as an innovative corporate measurement and reporting platform to ensure that the plastic waste actions and interventions that companies are taking – including reuse – contribute to systems-change, and framed through the lens of eliminating unnecessary plastics, shifting to sustainable sources, and helping recycle and recover more plastic waste. https://player.vimeo.com/video/426364330?title=1&byline=1&portrait=1&autoplay=0

This data-driven, systems-change approach must be applied to reuse, as it’s imperative that we ensure the benefits of reuse are actually supporting the transformational changes we need to see within the plastic system, and importantly, are not inadvertently leading to trade-offs with other environmental issues, such as the climate, sustainable sourcing, food loss and waste, among others.

In addition to reinforcing the environmental integrity of reuse, we also need to consider the business and consumer landscape as levers to getting it off the ground.

The short-term business case for accelerating consumer access to reuse alternatives starts with capturing the increasing percentage of people who are willing to pay more or switch to brands that are committed to sustainability. In the long-term, global industries that do not steward more responsible use and consumption of the world’s resources will incur the significant financial, social, and environmental costs from collapsing ecosystems and economies.

Collaboration along the supply chain to gather data and insights and share knowledge will be essential to move the world forward around the proven value of reuse. No matter where you are along this supply chain – a packaging vendor, retail buyer, or end-user – embrace innovation with people and the planet as your North Star.

This blog is co-authored by the Co-Chairs of the Steering Committee of Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform. The Platform seeks to advance responsible models of consumption for the benefit of society and business, and accelerating environmentally sustainable business models is a key transformation goal of the Platform.

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