The share of plastic packaging that is reusable among major consumer brands remains stagnant, but is ripe for change, according to a pair of reports from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Oceana.
While many brands and regulators have set targets to make more packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, the reuse/refill category has seen the least attention because it often requires a broader shift in distribution systems and consumption patterns.
In 2018, EMF established a “global commitment” for brands and retailers to sign on to a pledge and rethink their packaging. This included multiple goals, such as a pledge to “ensure 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable” by 2025.
Five years in, EMF said that while progress reports have “shown it is possible to make meaningful progress in tackling plastic waste and pollution ... It is equally clear that the world remains off-track.”
EMF notes a growing number of reuse efforts, with the beverage and retail sectors accounting for half of all new reuse pilots in 2022. Recent examples include larger bulk offerings at select locations of grocers such as Carrefour and Ahold Delhaize, “refill-on-the-go” offerings in the stores of cosmetics company L’Occitane and dozens of new pilots by beverage brands such as Diageo. But it also shows that wider uptake remains limited.
“I think meaningful progress will happen only if signatories start working together, aligning on the best categories for reuse and standardizing reusable packaging so that they can share costs and create efficiencies of scale,” said Olga Kachook, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, via email. Otherwise, Kachook said, “we will continue to see one-off pilots and consumer confusion and frustration.”
Kachook suggested that the best categories for reuse include items that are used often, sent back for returns regularly and purchased in a direct-to-consumer environment or other settings where the packaging “delivers more value.” Examples such as mailers, boxes and bags are considered a “great fit” because formats are already more consistent and existing delivery systems can be used to collect the packaging.
Kachook also cited the Closed Loop Partners-backed Beyond the Bag project as an example of retailers working to standardize their approach and messaging for reusable carryout bags. Based on a pilot with more than 160 retailers in Tucson, Arizona, and Denver, the concept could help avoid a projected 5.8 million bags per year in those markets.
EMF signatories’ progress on reusable plastic packaging
|Largest signatories by revenue||2022 plastic packaging (thousands of metric tons)||2018 reusable plastic by weight||2022 reusable plastic by weight|
|PepsiCo||2,600||Not reported||Not reported|
|The Coca-Cola Co.||3,430||4%||1.3%|
Coca-Cola, which saw the greatest decline among major signatories, did not offer a specific reason for the change.
“We care about the impact of every drink we sell and are committed to growing our business in the right way," said Bailey Rogers, senior manager of sustainability communications, via email. “We know more must be done. We will continue to collaborate across industries to share learnings and innovate.”
That includes a target the company set last year to achieve to increase the amount of “reusable or returnable packaging” to 25% by 2030. The company’s latest data indicated that rate was at 14% in 2022, down slightly from the prior year. Coca-Cola said in its EMF update that refillable bottles could be part of growing this share and noted that “61% of the equivalent bottles and cans we introduced into the market were collected and refilled or collected for recycling” in 2022.
PepsiCo set a similar target to increase the amount of beverage servings it sells in reusable models from 10% to 20% by 2030.
Oceana, in its “Refill Again” report released this month, called on both brands to talk more publicly about their targets and asked others to set their own. The nonprofit group wants major companies to increase their share of reusable packaging 10% by 2030, which it estimates could prevent up to 153 billion single-use plastic bottles and cups from entering waterways.
While beverage companies or reuse skeptics sometimes point to the challenge of scaling up the necessary infrastructure to do this in North America, Oceana’s report outlines how brands such as Coca-Cola are already well-versed in this overseas.
“That point of view belies something that we're working towards, which is this kind of blindness towards this very large system that exists that sells billions of these bottles,” said Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives. “People are like, ‘we have to create this perfect system.’ This system exists ... It exists in Texas.”
In 2022, a Coca-Cola pilot in El Paso provided refillable 500-milliliter glass bottles to select food service customers. Oceana visited one participating location to see the system firsthand and released a video with the a local restaurant owner discussing how the program had worked well. The company’s report to EMF notes that this program generated return rates of 75% across approximately 100 locations.
Coca-Cola’s report said refillable beverages account for 25% or more of sales in 40 markets, and 50% or more of sales in about 20 markets. Plus, refillable fountain drinks are widely available in many markets. It also touted related pilots or expansions in South Africa, Brazil and France over the past year.
Looking ahead, the company’s report to EMF said it will continue exploring a “universal bottle” concept and other pilots. Coca-Cola said it aims to advance progress by expanding in “regions like Latin America and Africa that already have high levels of reusable packaging, but we may also need to build new infrastructure in additional markets.”
Littlejohn said this should be feasible and the business case has been proven out by certain international Coca-Cola bottling companies that already invested in these systems. Plus, he feels a returnable container network should be attractive because “these bottles are often one of the biggest assets on these companies’ books.”
PepsiCo’s report to EMF touted its expansion of the SodaStream brand for home and office uses in new geographies such as Spain, among other initiatives. The company also noted plans to scale “refillable plastic and glass bottle offerings in partnership with PepsiCo bottlers” and cited recent investments in Latin America and Mexico.
Both companies also noted recent involvement with reusable cup systems at stadiums or entertainment venues.
Oceana’s report points out that beverage refill systems used to be the default for Coca-Cola in the 1920s and could be again. It notes that “these companies are among the most successful marketers on the planet” and already pitch refillables as an affordable option in certain markets. Scaling up that approach to the U.S. and beyond, Oceana posits, could tap into growing consumer desire for lower-waste options.
"Ultimately it's also in these companies’ business interests to sell more, because the reason why there's so much reuse already is because it's something that customers want,” said Littlejohn.
Regulatory drivers — such as a pending global plastics agreement, upcoming European Union packaging regulations and extended producer responsibility laws in four U.S. states — may play a further role in the shift from single-use to reusable plastic. Groups in the space also see a role for companies to voluntarily make reuse the default option.
"We have to move past trying to create the perfect pilot,” wrote Kachook. “Meeting these goals will require participating in bigger-picture systems change, so that reuse is just what everyone is exposed to first and what's on offer by brands.”