The Potential of Reusable Food Packaging

Refillable containers could keep tons of waste out of landfills.

June 27, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Consumers want both convenience and sustainability, and companies are responding with containers, bottles and bags designed for assorted uses, reports

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 29.7% of total waste in 2015 was the 77.9 million tons of containers and packaging. Many blame the problem on plastics, but Tim Debus, president and CEO of the Reusable Packaging Association, said “the real root evil of the pollution is not material based. It’s disposability.”

Single-use plastic packaging is a convenient option, something that consumers have always wanted, and manufacturers have opted for more and more single-use packages because it helps reduce shipping costs. But these benefits come at the expense of sustainability.

The World Economic Forum reports plastic packaging waste represents an annual loss to the global economy of between $80 and $120 billion. Reusable options not only help alleviate that cost burden, but consumers are also willing to pay more to help solve the sustainability problem. 

Households headed by adults younger than 25 are 29% more likely to consume microwaveable dinners and 26% more apt to eat frozen breakfast entrees or sandwiches, according to Packaged Facts. Millennials are expected to drive food delivery sales up from $35 billion in 2018 to $365 billion worldwide in 2030, reports UBS Investment Bank. Despite their preference for convenience, these consumers don’t want to create waste.

To solve this dilemma, companies, including Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and The Body Shop, have signed on to initiatives that make reusable packaging convenient.

“When you give the average person the choice between the most convenient option and the most sustainable options, more often than not, the more convenient option wins,” said Toni Rossi, vice president of global business development, Loop.

Loop is an online delivery service where customers select their products and pay for the order (including a fully refundable deposit on the reusable jars) and wait for it to be delivered in a reusable tote. Shipping is free after seven items are ordered. When the jars are empty, customers replace the them in the tote and wait for UPS to pick up their used containers and deliver their replacement order. 

“It’s a model of reusability, but it acts like single use. We’re not asking the consumer to do anything different than they would today,” Rossi said.

Although Loop only began its U.S. pilot program in May, the idea of fusing reusability with convenience has generated wide appeal. The waiting list for the service, which currently serves 5,000 people in the Northeast, includes 85,000 people.

Henry Simonds, co-founder of Tyme Fast Food, said that reusability is all about reframing the conversation around packaging, and Simonds asked himself an important question when he started his company.

“How do you do [sustainable food delivery] in a way that sort of finds a great alternative that’s not going to sacrifice on food taste and convenience and price but delivers a product that has a seriously positive impact on people and planet?” Simonds said. His answer was to offer plant-based meals in a reusable plastic jar.

His intent was to have customers return empty jars to Tyme for sanitization and reuse by the company. By giving customers $1 off new purchases when they returned jars, he saw an 80% return rate. Plus, the jars were appealing for reuse in other ways, from storing change to packing homemade lunches. One interesting use is turning the lunch containers into plant containers. Tyme started this initiative by sending soil and seeds, along with some lunch deliveries, to encourage creative reuse.

Despite the obvious benefits of reducing waste, there are challenges associated with creating reusable packages, not the least of which is the expense.

For companies participating in Loop’s program, purchasing a new mold to make a custom package from stainless steel can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000, said Rossi. That investment, although initially steep, pays off in time. Compared with a disposable plastic container, Loop containers are environmentally neutral after three uses, according to the company’s lifecycle research. After seven uses, the reusable container has 74% less impact on the environment than a disposable one.

Rossi said Loop containers are viable for approximately 100 uses, making a $3 container cost three cents per use. A one-use plastic container can cost anywhere from 13 to 30 cents each. However, reaching those economies of scale relies on buy-in and commitment from companies and consumers.