The world has a packaging production and pollution crisis, and reusable packaging systems can help.
Annually, millions of tonnes of raw materials are extracted from the Earth to make billions and billions of units of packaging, most of which are designed to be filled just once, used by the consumer for mere minutes, before being discarded once empty.
This 'linear' take-make-throw single-use packaging system drives unsustainable demand for the planet’s finite resources, and contributes to plastic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and eye-watering streams of waste that choke up our landfills or burn in the furnaces of incinerators overseas. Furthermore, because packaging usage in most countries outstrips onshore recycling capacity, large amounts of end-of-life packaging are exported from developed countries to developing countries for ‘recycling’ (a practice sometimes referred to as 'waste colonialism').
While no ‘silver bullet’ exists to address this packaging crisis, reusable packaging is one tool in the toolbox to reduce the footprint of the packaging system.
A reusable package can be filled tens, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of times. Each time a reusable package is reused, the creation of a new single-use package is avoided entirely. In this way, reusable packaging helps us to decrease the pressure of the packaging production tap - slowing the amount of resources drawn into the system, and reducing the quantity of waste, recyclate and plastic pollution that pours out the other side.
Read more about the problems of single-use packaging and how reuse can help here.
Reusable packaging in Nelson-Tasman
Earlier this year, Reuse Aotearoa was commissioned by Nelson City Council and Tasman District Council to explore existing reusable packaging systems in the Nelson-Tasman region, with a focus on food, beverage, takeaways, personal care products and cleaning products. We conducted desktop-based research, as well as interviews with 12 stakeholders in the region, and we were supported by Lani Rotzler-Purewa, a researcher from Para Kore.
What we uncovered was a good news story waiting to be told.
We found that the opportunity to purchase everyday household products in reusable or refillable packaging is relatively normalised and available in Nelson-Tasman. On any given day, a resident or visitor will likely encounter at least one reusable packaging system, like kegs, bulk bins, or swap systems for glass bottles, jars and reusable takeaway cups.
For example, the region has at least 8 grocery retailers whose primary packaging system is bulk dispensers, including: two Bin Inns; the independent BeetRoot Grocer in Motueka; a branch of the zero waste grocer, GoodFor; and two organic co-ops.
The region also has a community of willing businesses who are highly motivated to establish, sustain or further expand their reusable packaging offerings. As one interviewee stated:
“Our mission, with our business, is to leave the planet better than we found it. So, literally every decision that we make supports that. As we grow, we want the growth to equate to good for the planet… reusable packaging supports the values that we can’t ignore. It helps us sleep at night.”
Some of the reusable packaging systems in Nelson-Tasman are ‘best in class’ for the country. For example, Oaklands Milk, sells about 2-3 million litres of milk each year (about 25% of the Nelson milk market), all of which is packaged in reusable packaging. The company avoids the creation of 1 million 2L plastic bottles a year, making it one of the most impactful reusable packaging systems in New Zealand.
Nelson-Tasman businesses are also innovating new ways to bring their products to market in reusable packaging systems that really fly:
Oaklands Milk pioneered the use of milk vending machines in New Zealand.
Originating in Motueka in 2017, CupCycling was the country’s first reusable takeaway coffee cup scheme. CupCycling has since developed Swappa App, which gives users a convenient way to borrow cups without the need for a deposit. The app supports traceability of cups and keeps the numbers on reuse rates, which will help to inform reusable packaging systems going forward.
Yum Granola have established a central city ‘honesty box’ for reusable packaging that enables customers to order Yum Granola products online and still use their own containers. At the point of purchase online, the customer selects the “honesty box” option. They receive the code for the box padlock, and then leave their own container in the box. The Yum Granola team pick up the container, take it to the factory, fill it up and return it to the honesty box for the customer to pick up.
Chia Sisters are working hard to establish a viable system for kegging their juices, which will enable juice to be sold ‘on tap’ at both hospitality and retail outlets, without the need for individual bottles.
Despite the enthusiasm for reuse expressed by interviewees, we also heard that setting-up, running or growing a reusable packaging system is challenging. The barriers discussed include:
The high upfront cost to set-up good reuse systems, e.g. for washing infrastructure, a fleet of reusable packages, or kitting out a grocery store with bulk bins.
The ongoing costs to operate reuse systems, especially because single-use packaging is artificially cheap to buy (as its real costs are externalised) and its end-of-life management is effectively subsidised by public rubbish and recycling systems.
The lack of shared, public services and infrastructure for reuse, such as empty container collections or drop-off points, and washing and redistribution infrastructure and services.
The challenge of maintaining high levels of customer engagement and affordable prices.
The lack of participation in reuse from the full supply chain or from major retailers.
Motivated to overcome these barriers collectively and systemically, we found that some businesses in the Nelson-Tasman region are sticking their necks out to advocate for commercial collaboration to foster reusable packaging. Some are calling on the Government to put policy and investment towards growing reuse.
For example, earlier this year, Chia Sisters created an open letter and submission to Government calling for a centralised reuse scheme for beverage packaging in New Zealand. Businesses and organisations from across Aotearoa put their name to this letter and it seems that their voices were heard - the Government has recently put out a tender for research into a nationwide refillables system for beverages.
Chia Sisters are also collaborating with Pic’s Peanut Butter to launch Refill Revolution in February 2023. Refill Revolution will be a nationwide campaign and toolkit for producers, designed to encourage and support producers to expand and promote their refill offerings, and shift consumer preferences towards refilling packaging. Refill Revolution will focus on raising the profile of the different refill options across New Zealand. Businesses will be able to get involved by:
driving awareness of their refill offering (or coming up with one, such as enabling consumers to refill product direct at their factory) using the Refill Revolution campaign assets
activating a refill event at their local markets using the Refill Revolution event toolkit
attending an online workshop to hear from circular economy thought leaders and other producers.
If you are a food or beverage producer in New Zealand and want to get involved with Refill Revolution, please contact email@example.com.
Introducing effective and accessible reusable packaging systems is becoming an increasingly important part of government and business strategies to reduce packaging waste. Our report suggests a number of actions for councils and businesses in Nelson-Tasman to increase the uptake of reusable packaging in the region. Our recommendations for businesses were categorised by industries:
Suppliers and producers: offer reuse and refill whenever you can.
Hospitality, tourism and accommodation: be a customer for products in reusables and collaborate to de-risk the phase-out of single-use.
Retailers: actively encourage and facilitate reusables with your suppliers and your customers.
Couriers/postal service: help to get reusable packaging from A to B.
Collective action across businesses and industry: work together to fill infrastructure/service gaps and advocate for pro-reuse policies.
You can read the rest of our report, and our suggested actions for Councils, on the Reuse Aotearoa website.