Single-use to reuse - changing the habits of a lifetime

7 September 2023

In November, UN member states, businesses, and NGOs will descend on Nairobi, Kenya for the next phase of negotiations that will shape the Global Plastics Treaty. But for the Treaty to have any teeth it must addresses the entire lifecycle of plastics. A comprehensive, circular economy approach based on the waste hierarchy and framed through the lens of SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production. With elimination, prevention and reuse prioritised.

This will require new radical thinking looking at whole systems change, and this is no more evident than in the world of reuse. How do we create a new system that is easy and convenient for people to embrace in their everyday lives.  

This is where our work with UK Plastics Pact members is showing the way. Collaborative partnerships, in a precompetitive space, working together to solve one of the trickiest problems we face shifting to a circular economy for plastics.

A Roadmap for reuse

In 2018, the UK Plastics Pact Roadmap set out key milestones to achieve widespread implementation of reusable packaging systems in the UK by 2025. An ambitious undertaking, these were refined in 2022 to provide detailed objectives to support Pact members in delivering the Pact’s 2025 reuse objectives within their businesses.

With the 2025 targets in sharp focus and the Roadmap milestones as a guide, UK Plastics Pact members are committed to exploring reuse and many are trialling a plethora of models appropriate to their individual business strategies.  It was this rich emerging landscape of trialling and testing insight that led us to convene the roundtables that WRAP hosted across the winter of 2022/2023. 

Reusable packaging roundtables report

Reusable packaging roundtables

Read our report

Roundtable discussions 

The roundtable discussions delved into the barriers that have prevented the widespread scaling of commercial trials.  Reusable packaging is a different and often quite unfamiliar concept for many businesses in the 2020s. How will these radical models compete with the highly optimised linear packaging models that have evolved over more than half a century, and which currently operate at industrial scales of efficiency that are commercially very compelling? 

As our members reported back on the findings of their trials, we began to identify similarities across these diverse experiences – similar challenges that could benefit from collaborative, streamlined solutions. By bringing together our Members we began to unpick the barriers they’d articulated and identified a number of common elements that are informing new ways of thinking about reusable packaging systems.  

With the commitment of our Members and willingness to share often challenging insights, we’ve been able to synthesise their diverse experiences and use that knowledge to find new models to overcome the barriers to entry for both business and consumers.  

Unpicking the complexities of an unsustainable linear system 

The knowledge gathered through the Roundtables has fed into work undertaken by WRAP during the first half of 2023. Working closely with industry, we co-designed a series of pre-competitive industry working groups focused on prefilled reusable packaging platforms. These have looked in detail at aspects including standards as enablers, sanitation and hygiene, packaging as a service, citizen engagement and behaviour change incentivisation, as well as the role of policy, impact measurement and business case development. 

WRAP’s part in a major reuse trial with Asda and Unilever in 2022 also provided extensive insight into instore refill models, particularly understanding the barriers to consumer participation and the challenges faced by retailers physically implementing and managing instore refill.

We are now consolidating all this rich research into an industry Roadmap for reuse. This will take a longer-term view of reuse, advise on roles and responsibilities for participants and begin the radical process of scaling up reusable packaging systems to evolve to the levels of efficiency we currently enjoy within our linear packaging models.  


Reuse trial with Asda and Unilever

The role of good policy

It's encouraging to see the UK Government leaning into reuse, particularly in the packaging context.  As other circular economy levers such as DRS and EPR are delayed, and the likely influence of the Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution better understood, the current economic imbalances that favour linear packaging options are likely to become less stark in coming years.  This may shift the balance towards reuse as an economically viable packaging model of choice for business.

A clear policy agenda, articulated as early as possible, will be essential to enable a smooth transition for industry.  And with many major multinational Pact Members operating and managing compliance across the UK and European markets, attention must be paid to the development and implementation of reuse provisions under the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, to ensure alignment of incoming UK regulatory frameworks.    

To build a business case, data will be key

Establishing a more comprehensive data set will also be essential, not only for the economic business case but for the increasingly scrutinised carbon and ESG reporting that businesses are required to provide. And business must be prepared to take a medium to long-term view to realise the potential benefits of a widespread shift to reusable packaging. 

Vanguard of a new era

We are at the vanguard of creating new businesses and business models to enable the transition to fully circular reusable packaging platforms. Businesses recognise that these new collaborative approaches are vital in addressing over-consumption of resources and the poor outcomes, particularly for plastic packaging, which currently challenge the linear value chain. Having the opportunity to explore these issues through frank and open dialogue with our Members has been invaluable in taking these bold steps forward, together. 

We thank them for their contribution in helping to shape these new systems that will truly deliver circularity for packaging in the UK.