UPS Driver delivers reusable packaging to woman at home

Reusable Packaging: Great Potential, But Challenges Ahead

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to throw so much packaging away? Reusable packaging feels like a huge step toward reducing what goes into landfills. We're excited to see great companies such as Nestle and UPS joining the TerraCycle Loop initiative. We also applaud Otter Products in exploring ways to make reusable packaging mainstream. All of this is not only exciting, but also imperative.

Unfortunately, the path to high-volume reusable packaging isn’t nearly as smooth as it may seem. Customer costs, logistics, and efficiency are just three of the main stumbling blocks for companies exploring reusable packaging.

Customer Costs

Although the meal-kit industry is likely to see strong double-digit growth year-over-year through 2023, customers switch services frequently. We can all agree the world needs less Styrofoam®, but customers may not be ready to pay for a deposit for a reusable package. Amazon and PeaPod have both struggled with this problem. These deposits increase customer acquisition costs and present a barrier to trial for companies that pass those costs on to their customers. In the future, if customer preferences have stabilized, companies might be able to charge for a reusable option. For now, this market segment is likely to remain volatile for the foreseeable future.

Logistics

The reverse logistics associated with collecting, sanitizing, and re-deploying packaging are costly and labor intensive. These reverse logistics tend to work only in closed-loop systems, such as blood banks. Meanwhile, people recycle corrugated paper properly 93% of the time. New forms of e-commerce packaging should be designed to leverage the existing efficient, nationally available, corrugated waste collection streams. Reusing a single package hundreds or thousands of times may be more environmentally sustainable than using responsibly-designed single-use packaging solutions. The question remains: "will people actually re-use these packages, and is the energy required to make this system work worth it?"

Efficiency

Right now, meal-kit services are focusing on fundamentally proving the viability of their business models. They are taking a hard look at their cost structures, with packaging and logistics front and center. It's much easier to continuously customize single-use packaging, using various pack-outs, sizes, and components to minimize footprint, cost, and weight. Reusable systems are less efficient because they are expensive and hard to change once the investment has been made. Reusable packaging is rigid in a market that still very much relies on a flexible supply chain. We're happy to see innovation in the space of e-commerce and subscription-based cold-chain packaging. At this point, however, the market cannot bear the costs or complexities of implementing reusable packaging.

As work remains to be done with reusable packaging we will continue to innovate and create more in the world of temperature stable, paper-based, curbside recyclable products. In the end, reusable or recyclable, we can all do well by creating better solutions for the planet.


MRF plastic recycling

The Atlantic's Article on Recycling is a Missed Opportunity

Alana Semuels’ recent article, "Is this the End of Recycling?" in The Atlantic seems to have re-ignited conversations about the business and habits of recycling in the U.S. Here’s the good, bad and ugly about the author’s take on the state of recycling in our union.

in The Atlantic seems to have re-ignited conversations about the business and habits of recycling in the U.S. Here’s the good, bad and ugly about the author’s take on the state of recycling in our union.

The Good – Semuels describes the financial impact of moving waste to landfills within the United States. I’m so glad she brought this up – she’s right, there is a real financial impact of moving waste to landfills across the country. I wish she would have explored this area further. The waste market should operate just like any other free market where behavior and price are intertwined. As recycling slows down, prices for landfilling will go up, cities will require a heavier tax for waste disposal to cover their increased costs from the waste management service providers. As this cost becomes front and center, consumers will become more cognizant of the waste they create, and as a result - will put more pressure on companies to build more sustainable products. The financial cost is nothing to hide from - it's the innovation driver.

The Bad – The writer doesn't come across as sympathetic to China's decision to place restrictions on imports of certain recyclables. The market for waste is like any other market. If you sell a bad product, you're going to get called out for it. The U.S. has been selling a bad product. China called us out for it in their notification to the WTO in 2017: "We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China's environment seriously." - Ministry of Environmental Protection. If the roles had been reversed, the U.S. would have done the same thing (only sooner). 

The Ugly – By “ugly” I mean confusing. The topic of recycling is actually fairly complex so when The Atlantic publishes an article that makes statements about organic waste in landfills, decomposing, emitting methane and its resulting impact on our environment, it's true but confusing. The article is about recycling and you cannot recycle many organic materials (e.g., tea bags, coffee filters, yard waste, not to mention the 3.5 billion lb. of food waste that we generate in the US each year), so those methane emissions seem odd to mention. Organic material should be composted (which was not even mentioned). This also seems odd to mention because plastics that are sequestered in a landfill do not generate emissions.

I admire Ms. Semuels for taking on the subject but she missed an opportunity to inspire leadership on a corporate and government level. We need to be less aspirational as consumers who believe we’re doing the right thing by throwing stuff in a green or blue bin and more geared towards risk/reward. In an ideal world, companies will make smarter choices about the materials they are bringing into their world, consumers will make better choices about how they dispose, and MRFs will invest into better sorting technology because China will be a happy customer wanting more. Right now, that's backward at every level because no one is really convinced (in their deepest self) that anything is at stake here. The problem isn't "real" enough yet.

James McGoff is the Cofounder and Co-CEO of TemperPack. Based in Richmond, VA, TemperPack seeks to solves the world’s packaging problems through sustainable deisgn.