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Here’s a Brief Summary of Why We Need a Nation-Wide System of Reusable Containers:

Why do we want a nation-wide system for uniform, reusable food containers? A few businesses in the United States have forayed into the reusable container business, so why don’t we leave this entirely in their hands? The company Loop has worked with companies so that they can have their own branded reusable packaging, unique to each company. Highly branded packaging is likely very appealing to large brands, which are able to sell their goods at premiums in part because the brand is so identifiable.

The thing is, if every food business or reusable container business creates their own line of reusable containers, this creates a very complex system, especially since we know that goods that are made in one part of the US often travel to many other, if not all other states in the US. Unlike disposable packaging, reusable packaging of course is meant to be reused…meaning the containers require reverse logistics, and after a container is used once, it must return to where it can be packed with food once again. Let’s consider even a company as large as, say, Hershey’s. Hershey’s has only eight US factories, and most of them are on the East Coast. Just thinking of the carbon footprint, imagine the amount of additional waste that is created if a reusable Hershey’s product is one, in a reusable container that weighs slightly more than its disposable counterpart, and two, not only has to make a 2,620 mile voyage from Hershey, Pennsylvania to the excited hands of a Los Angelino child, but then, container empty, the weight of that container has to travel that 2,620 mile journey again just to be refilled with the same product.  

Sure, Hershey’s should absolutely be able to sell their goods in whatever reusable container they want, that’s their right. But, what if, there was also an option for Hershey’s to sell that same treat in a, still Hershey’s labeled, but standardized reusable container? Here’s the new picture: Hershey’s packages a chocolate that travels 2,620 miles to the delighted Los Angelino child. Rather than having to send the container back through a special company that Hershey’s has specifically partnered with, the child can dump their reusable packaging anywhere – it’s standard, so there are drop-off locations everywhere, maybe it can even go in the common recycling bin and be sorted out at a recycling facility. From the drop-off point, now the container goes to the closest local business that washes and sanitizes these standardized containers. Los Angeles has a population of about four million people, so the container might not even have to travel a mile. The container gets cleaned, and it’s ready to go. This washing company gets their next order from a food company that needs more reusable containers. These standard container washing companies are across the country, and their cleaning standards are also universal, meaning public trust can be built that the containers are sanitary. It would make sense for these washing companies to fulfill orders from the closest locations, as this reduces shipping costs.

The next order for this washing company is from a small local bakery. If it weren’t for standardized reusable containers, this bakery might only have disposable options, as sustainability isn’t their main priority. But the scale that comes with standardization allows these containers to be affordable to the bakery. What was once a Hershey’s container now becomes the container for a baked good. It’s grabbed quickly off the shelf by someone on their way to the airport. Normally, you wouldn’t want to fly with a branded reusable container, because you may not be able to return the container to the right place during your travels, and you don’t want to keep it on you for the whole trip – no one wants anything extra on them as they travel. But since this container is standardized, and it is able to be reused nationwide, life is easy for this traveler. They dispose of it in the Philadelphia airport when they land. Perhaps Hershey’s will once again fill this container with chocolatey goodness.

This journey, this cycle, was so different from the other journey of the brand-specific container. The universal reusable container served its purpose and within two uses, actually created a smaller carbon footprint than if everything had been packaged in single-use packaging. (The lifecycle of reuse products can have lower carbon emissions than disposables in as little as two uses).[1] The process was also so much simpler for the consumers. The only other way that I can imagine the process being this simple for consumers is if there was an all-out monopoly that owned all the reusable containers in the United States. To provide just one example of why we don’t want monopoly ownership over reusable food containers: it may create barriers for regional areas to enter the space. If the monopoly determined that expanding drop-off locations/washing facilities/etc. didn’t make sense for an area, then that area would be hard-pressed to use these reusable containers. The region may only have the option to use more niche, expensive reusable container systems. (Which means many regions just won’t.) A national network of regionally-based businesses, unlike monopoly ownership, would put this system in the hands of locals, allowing people to input this system where it is considered useful and needed.

A universal resusables program would cut carbon emissions.  It would be the simplest system for the public to implement. (If we’re being candid about how much Americans travel and how busy most of our lives are.) Lastly, allowing private companies to take control of this market removes local agency in participating in an affordable reusables system. Chocolate in a reusable container, and escape from “climate guilt,” shouldn’t only be available to the privileged child of a hipster Los Angeles parent. We need a national system of regional businesses that work together to produce universal reusable containers.


 

[1] Miriam Gordon, Upstream, Reuse Wins: The Environmental, Economic, And Business Case For Transitioning From Single-Use To Reuse In Food Service (2021). https://drive.google.com/file/d/10_2xn4C03VW1_xh-lbz-AIIc0tXhRbBi/view

  • The Story Within Containers: why would we all benefit from a well-planned, universal reusables program?

Recycling in the United States has not been a success. For decades, we have been adding recyclable materials to landfills. In 1960, the United States landfilled more than 82 million tons of materials, over 30 million tons of which was material considered “recyclable.” The amount of recyclable material headed to U.S. landfills has steadily increased since the 1960s, despite countless efforts to incentivize recycling and innovate recycling centers across the country. The flow of recyclables has been too complex for us to successfully recycle many of the materials our society uses, and decade after decade we have lost the recycling battle. What can we learn from our recycling history to ensure the story doesn’t repeat itself with reusable packaging?

In recent decades, plastic has made up the bulk of the US’ growing landfill additions. While 390,000 tons of plastic were landfilled in 1960, by 2018 the amount of plastics sent to landfills came to over 26 million tons. According to the EPA, only about eight percent of all plastics generated in the United States were recycled in 2018. (Some reports find this percentage generous – I’ve seen reputable reports list findings as low as five percent).  Globally, less than ten percent of plastic has been recycled once (Dickinson, 2020). 

There are many reasons why plastics have not been successfully recycled. A recent Greenpeace report listed five:

  • Plastic waste is too widespread to collect.
  • Mixed plastic waste cannot be recycled together.
  • Plastic recycling is wasteful, polluting, and is a fire hazard.
  • Recycled plastic has huge toxicity risks.
  • Plastic recycling is not economic. (Greenpeace, 2022). 

These are factors that differentiate plastic from other recyclable materials that have better recycling rates. (However, let’s keep in mind that an astounding 17 million tons of paper and paperboard was still landfilled in 2018.  Over 7 million tons of glass was landfilled in 2018, and currently glass only has a recycling rate of just over thirty percent). If we want reusable containers to be successfully reused in the United States, then we need to ensure we don’t have the mixed plastics problem – the containers need to be composed of simple materials that are easy to repurpose.  The containers must be easy to separate from other goods, making collection easy. Certainly ensuring that the containers don’t have toxicity risks if they are reused or recycled is a high priority, and reuse of these containers has to make economic sense.

As you might expect, as plastic use rose in the United States, so did single-use packaging. Overall, containers and packaging have contributed to more than twenty percent of all annual additions to U.S. landfills since 1960. While many containers are constructed of recyclable material, their recycling rate is only 53.9 percent.  Many single-use containers do not make it into the recycling bin, and even if they do, the U.S. generates more material than it has capacity to recycle. The EPA has noted that a challenge to today’s recycling system is confusion about which items are recyclable (U.S. EPA, 2021). This is exacerbated by the cultural perception that single-use packaging is disposable. Learning from the recycling rates of containers, we can take away that a successful reusable container program requires adequate capacity to deal with the containers, and it needs to implement design factors that encourage quick identification of these containers as reusable, while discouraging our society from seeing these containers as disposable. 

For a successful reusables program, it is important to create an organized, intuitive system from the beginning. If reusable containers are dispersed in a way similar to recyclable containers in America, then we may see only 53.9 percent of them reused after just one use. It would be against the point if almost fifty percent of all future reusable containers were landfilled after a single use.

Everyone should know which items are part of the reuse program.  All of the universal reusable packaging could look the same underneath food and brand labels. Reusables could be easily identifiable to both consumers and recycling centers. From the start, we could ensure that containers are made of materials that are easy and efficient to recycle, meaning that once containers reach end-of-life and need to be discontinued, the material is yet again reused. 

Reusable containers are new to our society, and we don’t need them in every shape and form – we have disposable, compostable, and recyclable containers for that. Unlike all other containers, reusable containers are made with the primary goal to reduce waste. If we make the reusable container system too complex, our recycling history shows us that we could end up landfilling many of the containers.

And, let’s be brave, and let’s say it loud: a successful nationwide reusable container system should not include containers made of plastic. Sure, maybe it will make sense for small components of it to be plastic – perhaps to create a sealed lid. But our society recognizes plastic as waste. If reusable containers are made of plastic, the natural inclination will be to throw these containers in the trash.

Dickinson, T. (2020 March 3). How Big Oil and Big Soda Kept the Plastics Crisis a Secret for Decades. Rolling Stone.

Greenpeace. (2022). Circular Claims Fall Flat Again.

U.S. EPA. (2021). National Recycling Strategy: Part One Of A Series On Building A Circular Economy For All.

U.S. recycling data throughout this article came from:

U.S. EPA. (2020). Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Tables And Figures.