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Four reasons why businesses won’t adopt reusable packaging – and one way to address them all

As global leaders meet in Glasgow for COP26, new research involving the University of St Andrews suggests a digital track and trace system is the way to encourage businesses to switch to reusable packaging and reduce waste.

The research, carried out in collaboration with Reath, a start-up founded by St Andrews’ alumni, and Lancaster University and published in the Journal of Sustainable Production and Consumption, identifies how new digital technologies can support a circular economy, which aims to create a successful economy based on reuse rather than disposability. Using unique bar codes to track an individual container throughout the supply and reuse chain can help prevent packaging waste and high costs to businesses.

Researchers interviewed brand manufacturers, retailers, regulatory bodies, NGOs and reuse experts from a variety of industries, including food and beverage, cosmetics and household products, to determine the main reasons for businesses not investing in reusable packaging.

The research uncovered four reasons why businesses will not adopt reusable packaging:

  • affordability, due to additional expenses incurred from changing current systems
  • current regulations that make single-use containers more competitive
  • concerns about increased risks and complications for health and safety
  • the potential to damage brand reputation if the scheme didn’t turn out to be better for the environment.

The research team asked business leaders how digitalisation might help overcome these challenges and interview responses were used to create the world’s first ‘Open Data Standard’ for reusable packaging – an agreed vocabulary for data collection that helps organisations work together as a container moves between the manufacturer, transport provider, retailer, customer and cleaning provider.

The study suggests that digital passports can directly address the hurdles identified by business as preventing them from adopting reusable packaging:

  • Tracking individual containers with a unique barcode enables businesses to calculate packaging lifespans and return rates from customers, both of which are crucial to determining affordability.
  • Currently organisations pay environmental taxes when packaging is released onto the market, but with digital trackers it would be possible to exempt organisations using refillable packaging. In this way, track and trace would allow governments to create taxation that incentivises reuse.
  • The unique barcode on a container can help to meet health and safety standards by evidencing cleaning between refills and return to the shop floor.
  • The digital passports would enable businesses to tell packaging stories in an appealing way, as they are able to verify and quantify their reuse activities for marketing purposes. A reusable container may require many uses for its environmental footprint to compare favourably with single-use alternatives, and so accurate accounting for refills is core to useful life-cycle assessments.

Researcher in the School of Management at St Andrews, Lucy Wishart, says: “There is a belief that technological initiatives in the circular economy fail to capture the social, cultural and political challenges facing organisations when adopting reusable packaging.

“But digitialisation can also help address these challenges through clarifying communication amongst stakeholders and supporting collaboration.”

Digital passports bring benefits that go beyond the individual organisation: packaging waste costs society and accounts for 36 per cent of municipal solid waste, with less than five per cent of plastic packaging currently recycled. There are currently no government targets for reuse of packaging in the UK or EU due to the challenges of monitoring reuse: digital passports would allow for this type of monitoring.

As a first step in realising this digital circular economy, the researchers at St Andrews and Lancaster are working with the founders of Reath with a mission to build the digital infrastructure for reuse that will enable a wide-range of stakeholders to work together and create systems for reusable packaging.


The paper, Circular Economy Infrastructure: why we need track and trace for reusable packaging is published today in the Journal of Sustainable Production and Consumption and available online.

Please ensure that the paper’s DOI (doi.org/10.1016/j.spc.2021.10.007) is included in all online stories and social media posts and that the Journal of Sustainable Production and Consumption is credited as the source.

Find out more about a digital infrastructure for the circular economy on Reath’s website.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

Sustainability

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