The hierarchy of waste management had never changed, but our throwaway society neglected the order for packaging favoring recycling over reduce and reuse because the economic system incentivized cheap, disposable products leading to a continuous cycle of manufacture, sales and consumption. There are growing efforts today to re-prioritize the order for packaging by putting source reduction activities like reuse ahead of recycling. This is also a cornerstone action when transitioning from linear to circular economic models.

“There is a global movement to create a sustainable world with a culture focused on reusables, not disposables.” The Greenpeace report published September 30, 2019 - Throwing Away the Future: How Companies Still Have It Wrong on Plastic Pollution “Solutions” – recognizes the growing shift in thinking from waste management and resource recovery to waste prevention and resource conservation. The report calls for “the reduction of units sold in single-use packaging, and for investment in solutions focused on reuse, refill and other systems not dependent on disposables.”

On October 24, 2019, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme published the first annual New Plastics Economy Global Commitment progress report. The Global Commitment is a pledge behind a common vision to address plastic waste and pollution with set goals on reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging products. Over 400 organizations have now signed on, including the Reusable Packaging Association and companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.

One of the pillar goals of the New Plastics Economy - based on the circular economy principles of designing out waste, extending material use at its highest value, and restoring natural ecosystems - is to “move from single-use to reuse models.” However, the progress report concedes that this reuse goal has a long way to go. Less than 3% of the signatories’ packaging, by weight, is reusable today. And 43 signatory businesses in the packaged goods, packaging producers and retail and hospitality segments reported that they have not yet started to identify reuse opportunities in their portfolio.

The current low baseline of reusable packaging in the market today, particularly with consumer packaging applications, demonstrates the untapped opportunities for reuse. This is an exciting prospect for both the substantial impact that reusables can make and the new development potential for innovative reusable systems. As more organizations call for reusable models and more businesses discover the reusable values, the position of reuse in the hierarchy will finally get the attention it deserves.

Tim Debus
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association