RECOUP’s new ‘Reusability by Design’ guidance aims to assist stakeholders with the design of reusable plastic packaging that truly meets the needs of the value chain. What are the key takeaways from the guidance, and what lessons can the industry learn from it? We put these questions to Katherine Fleet, Head of Sustainability & Circularity at RECOUP, in a recent conversation.


What is the purpose of this guidance, and what are the key objectives here from RECOUP’s perspective?

The purpose of the guidance is to provide advice on areas for consideration for reusable plastic packaging design for ‘return from home’ and ‘return on the go’ reusable packaging as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, taking into account evidence and knowledge based on research, industry and consumer views.

The guidance aims to ensure that all areas of the value chain are considered during the conceptual and design processes for reusable packaging and looks to highlight the key areas for focus when considering adoption of reusable packaging and the requirements of all areas of the value chain to ensure that appropriate and sustainable choices are made in reusable packaging design and development.

The key objectives from RECOUP’s perspective were to:

    • Increase understanding of design needs for the whole value chain for reusable packaging.
    • Provide valuable information and evidence to direct future work in this area as we progress towards a resource-efficient and circular economy.

As things stand, what are the key challenges that are preventing reusable packaging from becoming more mainstream?

With relation to ‘return from home’ and ‘return on the go’ reusable packaging, which was the focus of our research, the packaging is not owned by the consumer but is an asset of the reuse system.

For this type of reusable packaging and reuse system to become mainstream there is a key challenge around the availability or suitability of infrastructure, particularly cleaning and washing facilities or full-service providers that can manage the part of the life cycle from when the packaging is returned by the consumer through to it being refilled and put back into the retail sector.

Trials and developments for reusable packaging and the systems in which it needs to operate have in many cases either been introduced on a small scale or in specific geographic locations. While these trials and developments are great for furthering our understanding of the requirements of reusable packaging systems, they often all have different scopes and operate in different ways which does not result in a common narrative or solution for the uptake of reusable packaging which could be a limiting factor for reusable packaging becoming more mainstream.

The lack of legislation and regulatory pressure to introduce reuse systems is also a key challenge preventing reuse systems from becoming more mainstream. Without appropriate policy in place reusable packaging is unlikely to penetrate the market at scale as the driver to do so is not present.

What tactics and strategies can the packaging value chain use to overcome these roadblocks?

Collaboration among the value chain is key, not only will this ensure that the reusable packaging system and reuse system works for all players in the value chain but could also assist with building demand for more infrastructure to meet the needs of reusable packaging systems.

Standardisation, particularly in relation to reusable packaging design, would also help to build scale. Standardisation of packaging would mean that the shape and sizes of packaging formats for various products would conform to a set standard and be used across the whole industry.

Alternative ways of branding would need to be explored such as temporary labelling. Standardisation would require collaboration not only between all stakeholders in the value chain but also amongst organisations within the same market sectors.

The design stage is clearly critical. Could you unpack its importance, and tell us a bit about the technical choices that producers should be especially aware of during this phase?

The design of the packaging is critical to the success of a reuse system, neither can work without consideration of the other. From the views shared through our research there were some clear considerations required for the packaging design. When it comes to material choice, the top criteria that was shared was for the packaging to be recyclable at end-of-life after it can no longer be used within the reuse system.

Also related to material choice, durability is a key consideration, the packaging needs to be durable enough to withstand multiple trips around the reuse system but not over-engineered so that the environmental impact of extra material usage goes against any environmental gains achieved through multiple reuse cycles.

Other key areas for consideration highlighted in our research were related to the packaging format such as its size and shape, particularly in relation to efficiencies in the logistics phases of the lifecycle but also for consideration if the consumer needs to store the packaging at home before returning, such as making the packaging stackable or nestable.

Of course, the packaging must also be compatible with the washing requirements of the reuse system and be able to withstand the temperature requirements of the process.

Tell us more about tracking technologies in the context of reusable packaging – what are they designed to do, and how do they work in practice?

Throughout reusable packaging development, different tracking technologies have been tried and tested. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) (including Near Field Communications NFC) and barcodes (including QR codes) are the two main types of technologies currently used.

Barcodes represent data in a visual, machine-readable format. QR code is a type of two-dimensional barcode that can be read by a smartphone equipped with a suitable camera and software. The technology is therefore suited to consumer interaction and engagement with limited tracking capability across the whole packaging lifecycle.

RFID technology is better suited for automated tracking across the reuse system for packaging. RFID is a technology that uses radio waves to passively identify a tagged object. RFID tags are comprised of an integrated circuit, an antenna and a substrate.

The RFID tag holds identifying information in unique machine-readable codes. Tags allow automated tracking of individual items throughout multiple reuse cycles. Multiple RFID tags can be read almost simultaneously. RFID tags do not need to be within the line of sight of the reader so that they may be embedded in the tracked object.

RFID technology is a valuable addition to reusable packaging, helping to overcome barriers such as traceability and hygiene concerns and providing additional benefits to consumers and brands. RFID technology can collect rich data about the movement of assets within the system, the number of cycles, packaging provenance and legislative reporting, supporting consumer adoption and infrastructure implementation for optimal environmental impact.

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