By Samantha Millette and Clarissa Morawski
Last year, Collins Dictionary named “single-use” its word of the year, and it’s not difficult to understand why: efforts to reduce marine litter and eliminate plastic waste (particularly the single-use kind) were some of the key themes of 2018, with European Union Parliament and Council ending the year with a provisional agreement to phase out problematic single-use plastic (SUP) items by 2021.
While growing environmental concerns have prompted a number of local, regional, and national bans on various plastic packaging products over the last 20 years (e.g. Taiwan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malibu, Seattle, etc.), the new EU Directive on Single Use Plastic will be the most comprehensive piece of legislation yet at the global level to tackle plastic pollution. The new legislation, which will be published in the EU’s Official Journal before the elections in May 2019, focuses on the 10 most commonly found SUP and fishing gear in the environment, which together account for approximately 70% of all marine litter.
In addition to separate collection targets and design requirements, the Directive would totally ban 10 SUP products from the EU, including cotton bud sticks, plates, straws, stirrers, balloon sticks, oxo-degradable plastics and expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers and cups. Along with the ban on these 10 items, the new rules stipulate that Member States take “the necessary measures to achieve a measureable quantitative reduction” in the consumption of other SUPs not covered by the ban, like plastic take-out containers and coffee cups and lids. The Directive also wants to make producers of SUP products responsible for the costs of collecting waste consisting of those SUP products and its subsequent transport and treatment, including the costs of litter cleanup and awareness raising measures. The European Commission estimates that these changes, once fully implemented in 2030, could cost businesses over €3 billion ($3.5bn) per year.
While the upcoming EU-wide ban may create challenges for established plastic-using brands now having to adapt their business models, it also creates a tremendous opportunity for businesses ready to tap into the growing demand for plastic alternatives. In fact, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, reuse provides an economically attractive opportunity for at least 20% of plastic packaging (by weight), worth at least USD $9 billion.
A number of leading brands, retailers, and packaging companies have already realized this and are capitalizing on it. Take CupClub, for instance, which describes itself as a “cups-as-a-service startup” that allows consumers to ‘rent’ reusable cups for both hot and cold drinks. The company claims to reduce SUP packaging by up to 47%. After finishing their drink, consumers drop off the cups at a designated collection point. The cups are designed to be used 132 times before they are recycled.
Another company that has tapped into the reuse market is ReCircle. Launched in 2016, ReCircle provides reusable lunchboxes to restaurants across Switzerland for take-out food and, along with these, has created a deposit scheme. Since inception, ReCircle has distributed 70,000 reBox boxes to a total of 412 restaurants.The primary incentive for restaurants to join the ReCircle scheme are the cost savings. Single-use containers cost an average of 20 franc cents each, while the cost for 20 reBoxes is 150 francs. This means that a restaurant using 10 reBoxes a day would save about 520 francs a year by avoiding single-use containers, not to mention the potential savings from reduced waste management costs.
Other companies like Earth. Food. Love. in the UK, operate as bulk stores where products like nuts, grains, pastas, and maple syrup are sold in dispensers, with customers required to take their own containers to fill up, weigh, and label when shopping there. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, reuse models such as this could reduce packaging costs by at least USD$8 billion a year.
The January 2019 announcement by TerraCycle is the latest example of a company hoping to capitalize on reuse. This Spring, TerraCycle is planning to launch a trial scheme called Loop, which will allow consumers in select markets to buy Unilever, Nestle, Procter & Gamble products (and more) like ice cream, shampoo, toothbrushes, and laundry detergent in refillable metal and glass containers instead of single-use packaging. Consumers will be able to order goods online (from the Loop website or partner stores) and have them delivered like traditional products ordered online. Once the containers are empty, TerraCycle picks them up, cleans them, and delivers refilled containers back to consumers.
While schemes such as Loop should be applauded for their commitment to cutting plastic waste, there is a lack of standardization that makes the market less efficient and more costly. In the ideal scenario, every brand taking part in the scheme would use the same type of reusable packaging.
Using Standardization to Improve Efficiencies
Standardized containers, which are interchangeable and may be used by a number of brands, minimize the number needed by using a common stock to cover demand variations between companies. Standardized sizes and shapes also help make logistics more efficient, by maximizing storage and distribution space.
The efficiency of the logistics system can also be improved using a shared pool system, rather than a strict one-for-one return. At their simplest, container pooling systems entail the outsourcing of most of the inconvenient aspects of reusable containers to a third party organisation. In this model, the container pooling operator is the owner of the packaging and ensures that barriers in the logistics process (e.g. containers needing repairs) do not interfere with supply chain operations.
With reusable alternatives available across countless categories from coffee cups and food containers to straws and laundry detergent, it’s only a matter of time before other countries around the world follow in Europe’s footsteps, opening the doors to new opportunities for businesses to adapt to this changing environment and promote themselves as SUP-free. Those that seize the opportunity now could benefit from a head start.
Clarissa Morawski is based in Barcelona and serves as the managing director of the Reloop Platform (www.reloopplatform.eu), which brings together industry, government, and nongovernmental organizations in Europe to form a network for advances in policy that create enabling system conditions for circularity across the European economy. She is also principal of Canada-based CM Consulting Inc. (cmconsultinginc.com) She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samantha Millette is an environmental consultant specializing in the areas of waste management research, policy, and planning. She is the owner of SAMI Environmental (http://www.samienvironmental.com/) and can be contacted at email@example.com.