In this article, Willemijn Peeters, CEO and founder of sustainability consultancy firm Searious Business, gives her opinion on the issue of packaging waste.

Convenience has long stood for a fast-paced, throw-away culture – at least in the last century. But not anymore: convenience now also means ease of use without waste.

A whopping 74% of consumers are actively looking for more sustainable packaging and don't want mountains of plastic waste at home anymore. In the United Kingdom, this figure is even higher, with up to 90% of consumers stating they would choose a sustainable packaging option.

Please, spare me another article about the pros and cons of plastic. Everyone is already familiar with the images of plastic waste heaps in the sea and in our rivers, right? The problem is clear, but there are hardly any real solutions being worked on. Let’s be open about this; there's nothing wrong with plastic in itself, the issue lies with the system managing plastic and how users deal with it.

All too often, discussions focus on the replacement of one material by another, while not addressing the circularity of the system. The circular economy is a well-known concept in Europe, yet a deposit system has only been implemented in a few countries and then only for bottles made of PET or glass.

So which 'disposable' packaging in the supermarket is unnecessary and how do we make sure that an alternative is more beneficial?

Searious Business has gained a lot of experience over the last five years with the introduction of alternative materials and reusable packaging at supermarkets at home and abroad. We see an enormous increase in requests for unpacked products, but especially reusable packaging.

That is not surprising. Even in a pilot setting with lower-than-average quantities, you see payback periods of less than six months per product packaging and material savings of more than 30%. On average, that yields almost €200,000 in savings potential. Offering unpackaged and bulk products always pays off for our supermarket customers.


Yet, you have to know how to set up such a system properly. Ownership has to be well organised, as critical success factors such as design, hygiene, standardisation of packaging used and refill systems, tracking and tracing, cleaning, and logistics. One supermarket that has good experience in this field is Asda in the UK. They have set up an entire aisle with refill systems, with different brands supplying in bulk and consumers taking reusable packaging and returning it.

Carrefour has also introduced refill systems for various products in more than 1,000 stores in France. The strong growth figures speak for themselves and Carrefour has therefore announced further expansion for 2021.

In Morocco, Searious Business is running a similar systemic change project: the three largest national supermarket chains have partnered with the innovation agency and are now launching two pilot projects: a deposit system on PET bottles, and reusable packaging for hot and cold meals. It is interesting to note that the Moroccan government is using this project to introduce a nationwide deposit system and wants to implement further incentive measures to tackle packaging waste at source.

The behavioural changes initiated by supermarket chains are now demonstrating the feasibility of the reduced waste approach, giving the leading companies an immediate advantage over the rest. In this respect, a systemic approach clearly pays off compared to small, incremental improvements such as material substitution alone.

A shortcoming with a massive shift of plastic to paper or aluminium alternatives, for example, is the global availability of materials. A linear exploitation model of materials is simply not sustainable - that much is clear. Further, we know that some of those materials are 'recyclable', but in most cases, this is down-cycling for use in lower-value applications, such as in construction and building. It’s important to distinguish between recycling and circular use of materials.

2021 will be an important year in making materials more sustainable. The European Commission, as well as several national governments, have set hard targets and both supermarket chains and brand owners have made new commitments for this year. A further increase in the differentiation rate in packaging is inevitable, as is further expansion on deposit return schemes.

Brand owners, supermarkets, and large retailers are now in charge of driving less plastic waste in the future. They realise that all too well. However, not everyone comprehends that there is money to be made from a circular approach to materials, so there is certainly still work to be done in that respect. Those who realise first will get ahead of the rest.