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Reusable Reboot

November 19, 2020

Will consumers reconsider reusable packaging? The pandemic shut down any uptake on reusables and shone a light onto some of the barriers to adoption. But is it a sustainability strategy we could try again?

Before March of 2020, we had started making progress towards more sustainable packaging by the use of reusables. Retailers had started to provide more unpackaged goods and expanded bulk sections. We saw ‘unboxed stores’ pop up. And consumers started to use new systems: trials had begun between many retailers and Terracycle’s zero waste delivery platform LOOP where on-line retailers offered packaged goods in reusable packaging. But the pandemic shifted all that. We stopped taking our reusable cups to Starbucks or our reusable bins to bulk stores, and some LOOP trials were put on hold.

However, this October new announcements were made about new LOOP partners in a new category – fast food.  Both Tim Hortons and Burger King announced trials in selected areas where their customers can opt in for reusable packaging for menu items such as sandwiches, soft drinks and coffee. They can then return the reusable sandwich container or beverage cup to restaurants to be cleaned and reused. Customers will be charged a small deposit upon purchase, and once the packaging is returned, they’ll receive a refund. “During Covid, we have seen the environmental impact of increased takeaway ordering,” Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle and LOOP, said in a statement. “And that makes these new initiatives all the more important.”

The pandemic has shone a light into the risks of many situations, but we have had to figure out how to overcome them. We learned how to get back to work and school, and even how to travel again. And we’ll have to figure out, however long the pandemic lasts, how to tackle our plastic problem, including using reusables. Perhaps they can recover if we understand the pain points the pandemic illuminated. Here are four of them:

Safety:

Now reusable packages need to be part of a low-touch system. Consider the change that Tim Hortons and Burger King are suggesting in their new trial: reusable mugs are not brought in by the customer and filled by the service team, but rather customers order in reusable packages and drop off their empty reusable packages in the store later. This means that a mug is not passed between a customer and an employee, lessening the chance for the transaction of anything else – like a virus.

Responsibility:

Last year, some food stores were allowing customers to use their own containers – that they washed at home – to be brought in and filled up at the deli department and other fresh counters. But not anymore. However, in the LOOP system, the safe washing and reusing of the containers is not the responsibility of the consumer, the store or restaurant but rather the responsibility of LOOP. In its trials, LOOP will guarantee that clean, safe reusable packages are provided back to the CPG factories or restaurants. That a third party like LOOP steps into the transaction between the vendor and the customer seems strange, but this is uncharted territory, and we need a highly monitored system to create a process that can be trusted. Once understood, we may find a way to bring reusables back to more local systems.

Convenience:

Tim Hortons has an exceptional density across Canada. Many customers visit very frequently and can build a habit of returning their packages, but for others more options may be needed. Over time, partners like Tim Hortons or LOOP might create more drop off places for used packages beyond the retail store. And whether it’s from a retail location or an on-line delivery, a package – that LOOP says will be reused a minimum of 100 times – will need a convenient way to be returned if reusables are to succeed. Otherwise customers choosing them will be paying for the product plus the package deposit on multiple purchases, making it a too-expensive option.

Perceived Value:

The package deposit will likely be 25 – 50 % of the cost of the product. For consumers interested in sustainability, they have shown they are willing to pay for other sustainable solutions, like organic or humanely raised food, or chemical-free personal care products. And in a good reusable packaging system the customer will spend the deposit just once, and get it back when they return it.

For these customers, however, the value comes from the contribution they are making. A campaign to encourage the practice should talk about what is not being used – and its helpful impact – because a reusable choice is made. Reusables at Tim Hortons, for example, can help eliminate the unnecessary ‘double-cupping’ that some customers want for their hot drinks. In the past, this meant the unnecessary use of more than 200 million cups per year – or the equivalent of wrapping half the circumference of the planet with Tim Hortons cups.

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