For Part 4 of the Reuse Revolution series we will be putting the spotlight on the Return on the Go model. Victoria Hattersley spoke to Jonne Hellgren, CEO of RePack, about how reuse could transform the e-commerce market.

The Repack model is ‘packaging as a service’; the company’s clients can choose from three adjustable sizes which are designed to fold into a letter size when empty and can be placed in a postbox anywhere in the world. The packs can be reused up to 20 times and this, along with the use of recycled materials, can, claims Jonne, allow the company to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80%.

Once they have reached the end of their lives, Jonne says RePack prefers to upcycle the packs into new products rather than put them into the waste stream. “The recycling rate in Europe for any plastic is not great, so we don’t want to rely on the current waste streams. Most likely they would be incinerated or landfilled.”

The value for brand owners

We’ve heard of packaging as a service models before, of course, so what value proposition does RePack offer that makes it stand out for the large brand owners it is targeting, aside from the above-mentioned environmental ones?

“At the moment our main focus is fashion brands or companies producing electronics or consumer goods such as shoes that need to be protected. For most of our customers we have eliminated packaging costs because the offer RePack as an option in the check-out for a fee,” says Jonne. “The fees cover the cost of RePack packaging.

“In addition, most of our customers offer a reward for those who take part and return their empty RePack the consumer will get a reduction on the next purchase or perhaps a donation to charity. We find that when we collect data from end users, RePack users are happier with their shopping experience compared to non-RePack users – so it’s an investment in the user experience as well for our clients.”

And, as with the other reuse models we have spoken to, while Jonne says the big brands are generally more conservative about switching their delivery methods he thinks we are seeing a slow move in the direction of reuse. “Even big companies have strategies to reduce their impact and one part of this is to reduce trash. You can only do that when you focus on delivery packaging and I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of big brands that have been signing up to our platform.”

But more than this, according to Jonne, the difference in the RePack platform comes down to taking responsibility for the entire lifecycle of the package, rather than a discrete part of the supply chain.

“Yes, there are other initiatives around but usually what they do is design a durable and robust reusable package and it is then up to the customer to handle the return and the cycle themselves, which is the most difficult part of the whole reuse concept. With us, we take the returns back to the central hub, clean and redistribute the packaging, so when our customers start using the packaging they are not reliant on consumers to return it.”


The question of responsibility – an ‘unfair playing field’?

The above touches upon a fundamental problem facing the packaging value chain. Clearly there are both practical and environmental benefits to reusing and upcycling materials, although when it comes to reuse vs. single use the question of producer responsibility inevitably comes into play, and here there are certainly some discussion to be had.

The question of responsibility is a slippery one: it sounds great (certainly for brand owners) to have companies like RePack take over the reuse. They can feel good about making a positive impact on the environment while not having to dramatically change their processes or supply chain. But in a world where the blame for packaging waste does not lie solely with one member of the supply chain, neither should the solution.

It seems Jonne would agree. “When you use the recycle as opposed to the reuse model you could say it externalises all the environmental costs. If we are serious about tackling the single-use plastic issue then reuse models will have to be treated more favourably than they are today at a systemic level. Right now, you don’t really get any benefit from reusing the packaging as a company, whereas with single-use you just get off without having to pay the costs that accrue throughout the entire life cycle, so it’s an unfair playing field.”

More to do

None of this is to say that we have reuse totally right just yet – in the same way that we don’t have the recycling infrastructure perfect yet. Probably there isn’t such a thing as ‘perfect’ when it comes to such complex global questions. In a sense, reuse is growing alongside the booming world of e-commerce and there are ways in which the two might grow in tandem with each other, but this, as Jonne concedes, requires much more work.

“That’s where we see the adaptation of reusable packaging is not as quick as it could be, because the e-commerce companies are still putting the basic building blocks in place – warehousing, logistics, etc. After those have been running for a year or two, then it’s time to customise the solution a little more with innovations such as tamper-proof design. The whole infrastructure for RePack and reuse in general is only in its early days; it needs to be developed a lot.”

And finally, as I will be discussing in the final part of this series, there is the looming question of how COVID-19 is going to affect reusable packaging models. The very real concerns consumers and brand owners have about possible contamination will need to be addressed by all reusable packaging models if we are really going to see the kind of ‘grand, systemic change’ in packaging delivery Jonne believes is necessary. More on this subject next time.