Why your business should ditch single-use plastics and switch to reusable containers
By Page Schult
Globally, consumers are demanding more sustainable packaging. Consumer demand and legislation is increasingly focusing on a specific type of sustainable packaging: reusable packaging. A recent report on found that reusable packaging is a $100 billion dollar market and expected to grow. So, what does that mean for business owners, and how can they benefit from switching to reusable containers?
This guide provides an overview to answer this and many other questions related to what reusable containers are, what they are made of, whether they are better for the environment, and how your business can adopt reusable containers. You’ll learn everything you need to know about switching to reusable containers.
Table of contents
What is reusable packaging and why should I care about it?
Unlike single-use packaging, reusable containers are durable and designed to stay in circulation without needing to be remanufactured. Reusable containers can be used to wrap or transport materials repeatedly.
Individuals and businesses can reuse many types of packaging and containers. This means that reusable containers can support both B2B and B2C use cases.
What types of containers can be reused?
Individuals and businesses can reuse many types of packaging and containers. The most common types of reusable packaging are:
To-go containers and coffee cups
Insulated delivery totes
Containers for personal care and home cleaning
Boxes and bins
Defining characteristics of reusable containers
There are several characteristics that distinguish reusable containers from single-use containers and disposable packaging options. These characteristics make it possible for packaging to be returned, reused, and recirculated for the same purpose.
The packaging is explicitly designed for reuse in the same, similar, or other applications.
The packaging must be processed so as not to end up as solid waste, including recycled when its lifetime ends.
The packaging should be highly durable and sustain multiple transports so that it functions throughout its lifetime as in its original condition.
The packaging should ideally be designed for transport and storage, such as stackable or collapsible packages.
For even more details, the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA) has established guidelines to help clarify what types of packaging and containers are reusable.
Reusable containers should be easy to use (and reuse). While not always possible, it’s ideal if also collapsible for easy transport. In addition, containers can be created to optimize product handling by forklifts and other mechanical equipment, reducing the time required for transport.
What materials are reusable containers made from?
Reusable containers can be made from a wide range of materials. The most popular reusable container materials are:
In the best-case scenario, reusable containers are made from recyclable components. This allows for the packaging to be responsibly remanufactured or upcycled at the end of its useful life.
Why should you switch to reusable containers?
While the most apparent benefit of switching from single-use containers to reusable containers is the health of our planet and ourselves, there are numerous other benefits that come into play. Consumers favor the move to reusable containers for businesses and it is starting to become an expectation among shoppers. With reusable containers, you can increase their loyalty, engagement, and purchase satisfaction.
Beyond customer satisfaction, reusable containers offers cost savings and increased profitability. We’ve outlined some of the main benefits below.
Businesses that switch to reusable containers can save costs on single-use packaging. On average, reusable containers can be used between 100-1000 times before needed to be repaired or retired. This means you can buy 100-1000x less single-use packaging!
Beyond cost savings, reusable containers can create new revenue streams. Topanga’s platform allows for businesses to recoup costs – or charge late fees – on unreturned reusables. Additionally, businesses can create loyalty programs around reusable containers to drive repeat purchases.
If you’re considering switching from single-use to reusable packaging but worried about the cost, reach out to Topanga for a complimentary ROI analysis! Topanga’s team will help you choose a reusable packaging plan that makes financial sense for your business.
On average, reusable containers can be used between 100-1000 times before needed to be repaired or retired.
Customers are more committed than ever to sustainability, and responsible companies earn their business repeatedly. The choice of a company dedicated to ecological preservation is something millennials and Gen Zers seek out when faced with a choice between product or service purchases. Gen Z is almost entirely non-price sensitive when the option exists to use a socially responsible alternative. Let them love you!
Three-quarters of Gen Z consumers consider sustainability more important than a brand name for their purchase decisions. Their passion for sustainability is so tremendous that it caused their Gen X parents' preference to shop for sustainable brands to increase by 24%. Their willingness to pay more for sustainable products has risen by 42% since 2019. The shift to sustainable purchases is seismic and exciting.
Should you have a teenager, you probably learned this all a few years ago. They have no problem saying, “Dad! Don’t you dare buy that; it’s not eco-conscious.”
A sustainable and responsible company is one of 77% of organizations that sees increased customer loyalty, and 61% of consumers have lowered their single-use plastics usage.
Your customers will come back again and again. And that is precisely what you want for a profitable company.
Three-quarters of Gen Z consumers consider sustainability more important than a brand name for their purchase decisions.
Ecological health & sustainability
Reusable containers means less trash ends up filling our planet or degrading into dangerous microplastics that pollute our oceans and water sources. It is estimated that 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics exist in the world’s oceans and plastic litter (think straws, cups, toys etc.) is one of the main contributing factors.
In addition to improving marine and human health, switching to reusable containers also has a significant impact on your carbon footprint. In 2015, single-use plastics caused 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 6% of global coal electricity is used in the production of plastics. If the global use of plastics continues at the current rate, it is estimated that carbon emissions related to plastics will reach 1.34 gigatons. At that rate, total greenhouse gas emissions from plastics could reach over 56 gigatons or 10–13% of the remaining world carbon budget.
Moreover, it has been shown that single-use plastics impact carbon emissions throughout their entire lifespan, including:
Fossil fuel extraction and transport
Refining and manufacturing
The ongoing impact once introduced to our waterways, oceans, and landscape
Each time a reusable container is used, it replaces a piece of single-use packaging. By switching to reusables, businesses can save thousands of pounds of waste from ending up in landfills.
It is estimated that 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics exist in the world’s oceans and plastic litter is one of the main contributing factors.
Sustainability isn’t just important to you but to your employees as well. Nearly 90% of employees engaged in sustainability efforts say it increases their job satisfaction and feelings about the company. In a time when retention is exceedingly tricky, that is amazing.
Don’t advertise for unrealistic skills but for social and environmentally conscious employees ready to change everything. You’ll get the best people by far.
Are reusable containers actually better for the environment than single-use alternatives?
YES, and science has backed this up! In fact, plastics don’t always get recycled as expected; instead, 9% get recycled, 12% are burned, and 79% end up in landfills.
Based on The Dirty Truth About Disposable Foodware, 530 billion disposable cups are used every year around the world. Also, producing 500 paper cups wastes 370 gallons of water (washing a cup 500 times uses only 53 gallons).
According to the results from many foodware life-cycle assessments (LCAs) — studies on the environmental impact of a product from manufacturing to consumption to disposal — reusable packaging proved to be better for the environment than single-use. Reusable packaging wins over disposable products based on six environmental metrics:
Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) or global warming potential (GWP)
A circular economy, which favors reusable products and packaging, is key to sustainable consumption. In 2019, 1.9 billion metric tons greenhouse gases were emitted from waste alone. By prioritizing circularity and the switch to reusable packaging over single-use, we can keep divert massive amounts of waste from landfills and combat global temperatures from rising to critical levels and meaningfully thwart climate change.
While most of the research done to-date has been focused on reusable packaging in the food and beverage industry, the benefits of reusable packaging can be realized in a range of industries.
Which businesses use reusable containers?
Reusable containers can add value to supply chains across a diverse set of industries, including automotive, food and beverage, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), retail and wholesale, industrial, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, and mail and parcel.
Many businesses have begun embracing closed-loop systems to reduce waste and reap economic benefits. A closed-loop system is one where materials are endlessly reused or recycled at the end of its life while retaining quality, resulting in zero waste. Companies from startups and small businesses to large corporations have innovated new ways of using reusable containers.
Walmart partnered with a company for the exclusive use of reusable plastic containers (RPCs) for fresh fruits and vegetables. Through Project Gigaton, Walmart aims to avoid one gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. As a result, annually, they expect to:
Eliminate 70 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions
Avoid 40 million kilograms of solid waste
Decrease 1 billion kilowatt-hours of energy use
Reduce 1 million cubic meters of water consumption
Prevent 7 million kilograms of product damage
McDonald’s is one of two fast-food giants that have made compostable, recyclable, and reusable cups popular. They sponsored the NextGen Cup Competition to encourage others to find innovative ways to reduce waste produced by 250 billion fiber to-go cups thrown away annually. Three UK, German, and Asian companies placed in the Reusable Cup Service Models category.
Mcdonald's tested reusable hot beverage cups made from post-consumer plastic and bio-based materials, including McDonald's used cooking oil. The cups are to be collected so they can be properly cleaned and sanitized for reuse. By 2025, the burger restaurant set a goal to source 100% of packaging from renewable, recycled, or certified materials.
Starbucks partnered with McDonald’s in the fight to reduce waste. This coffee maker phased out plastic straws, and now it's set to get rid of disposable cups too.
The chain has begun piloting a reusable cup program. By the end of 2022, it expects every Starbucks in the U.S. and Canada to allow customers to bring their own reusable cups. By 2025, it aims for customers to have the option of using their own or Starbucks reusable cups. Overall, Starbucks wants to reduce 50% of waste by 2030.
The Bodyshop is a beauty retailer joining in on the fight against plastic waste. They launched a 5-year global refill program to offer 400 refill stations in 2021 and another 400 in 2022.
As a result of their refill program, which allows customers to reuse aluminum bottles for hair, shower and handwash products, they anticipate being able to:
Save over 25 tons of plastic per year
Prevent 2200 grams of carbon dioxide emissions
How can other businesses be encouraged to use reusable containers?
Most governments acknowledge the need for legislation, yet, few nations have adopted reuse regulations besides the pioneering countries of Chile, France, and Australia. However, the momentum that is underway is driving change. In some parts of the US, new plastic-reduction laws have begun penalization for single-use packaging. In addition, growing consumer demand calls for reusable packaging options.
Landfills don't solve the problems of a throwaway society that pitches items in the trash that become out of sight and out of mind. Nearly 300 million tons of waste fill American landfills each year and 70% of what ends up in landfills is single-use packaging. This creates toxins that pollute our earth and our own health:
Landfills contain “forever chemicals” (PFAs)
Landfills leak toxins into groundwater
Landfills pollute the air with methane
Making a move towards zero waste is the only answer. The idea of zero waste focuses on taking steps to eliminate trash. The process involves providing incentives for the production of products that support a circular economy.
There are many benefits to ditching disposables for reusables. A business that opts to use disposable packaging will:
Help the environment. 80% of plastic on the beach comes from food and beverage packaging.
Save money. Small businesses save $3,000-$22,000 per year when switching.
Generate brand equity. What’s good for a brand is good for its users, which results in value creation.
Overconsumption has resulted in billions of tons of waste, significantly contributing to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The replenishing of resources can't keep up with consumer demand. That's why we need to shift towards becoming a more circular economy. Packaging plays a huge role in reducing waste and conserving natural resources — any organization in any industry can replace disposables with reusables.
Topanga.io is the only technology-powered reusable packaging platform around. It’s designed to support the shift from disposable and single-use packaging to reusable containers that’s better for the environment. Our software suite manages and optimizes every step, from fulfillment to tracking to the customer experience. So, we make it easier for business to launch their own reuse programs and reap the benefits of improved customer engagement and ROI.
Whether you’re in the food service, healthcare, beauty, travel, other industry, we can help. Contact us for more information or to schedule a demo of our reusable packaging platform.