Minimising the environmental footprint of packaging

Brands are actively working to meet consumer demands for more sustainable products, particularly in packaging. There are numerous options now available – biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, etc. – but some are more practical than others. Nerida Kelton, vice president, sustainability and save food at the World Packaging Organisation, discusses the use of Reusable & Refillable Programmes as strong possibilities to help brands minimise their environmental footprints.

With consumers demanding brands and retailers reduce their use of unnecessary packaging on products, a shift has occurred with more and more Reusable & Refillable Programmes being trialled across the world. Many brands and retailers are trialling the Reuse model to determine whether consumers truly are prepared to change their buying behaviour to become more sustainable.

Whilst Reusable & Refillable Programmes are receiving positive feedback in other categories such as domestic, household and cosmetics, the food models may present more barriers, particularly around perceptions of health, safety and hygiene. How retailers and the partner brands communicate the messaging is paramount to the success of the Reuse Model for Food categories.

Loop: a new waste-free & reusable way to shop

One of the most innovative global programmes for reusable and refillable packaging is Loop; a first-of-its-kind service from global recycling organisation TerraCycle. The model is designed to create a zero-waste environment whereby retailers, packaging suppliers, brands and consumers work together to effectively minimise unnecessary single-use packaging.

The Loop programme enables products to be delivered to a consumer’s home in zero-waste packaging that has been designed in partnership with the brands. Some food brands that are partnering with the programme include Nestlé, Burlap & Barrel, Danone, Nature’s Path Organic, Häagen-Dazs, International Harvest, Reinberger Nut Butter, and Puretto.

How does loop work in a retail environment?

The customer purchases the product and initially pays a 100 per cent refundable deposit to ‘borrow the returnable packaging.’ Once consumed, Loop collects the empty packaging from the household and ensures that the packaging undergoes a rigorous hygienic cleaning process specially designed for its category and product type. Loop returns the cleaned packaging to the manufacturer who refills the product ready for repurchasing and continuing the ‘loop.’ The deposit is refunded when the customer no longer requires the product.

The Loop packaging is designed to be durable, reusable, and refillable and as an alternative to single-use packaging. The packaging design has taken into consideration design functionality, end-of-life, use of recycled content, reusable materials, and a recycling methodology for all solutions. To achieve the environmental benefits, the Loop programme packaging also needs to achieve the required number of return trips/usage. This is a critical design aspect to balance the additional environmental factors (CO2/energy/water) that will be incurred with the extra packaging weight, transport, and cleaning involved. A Life Cycle Assessment will be important in determining the best packaging formats to ensure that the packaging can be recycled at its end of life.

The Loop programme is now available in France (Carrefour), the United States (Kroger and Walgreens) and the United Kingdom (Tesco) and Canada (Loblaws). Programmes are coming soon across Japan (AEON), Australia (Woolworths) and Germany.

Refillable Häagen-Dazs right to your door

Nestlé, in partnership with Loop, have developed a reuse model that enables consumers to enjoy Häagen-Dazs in reusable packaging. Deliveries are made to the consumer’s front doorstep in customised, durable packaging that is then collected, cleaned, refilled, and re-used. Häagen-Dazs has designed a reusable double-walled steel canister that keeps the ice cream at optimal condition during transport and consumption. The canister design ensures that when opened, the ice cream melts more quickly at the top than at the bottom of the container. The canister is then sent back to a facility for cleaning and reuse.

Nestle began a test programme in Switzerland in 2020 where consumers can bringing reusable Nestle jars to refill their Nescafe soluble coffee. Image: Nestle

In-store refill stations and sustainable stores

In recent times there has been an encouraging shift in the retail environment where a broad range of brands are trialling Refill Stations in-store. In-Store Refill Stations are convenient for the customer and are another means of minimising unnecessary packaging in the retail aisles.

Asda trials new Sustainability Store

In late 2020 Asda, in the United Kingdom, opened a trial Sustainability Store in Middleton, Leeds. During the trial, customers were able to choose from more than 30 packaging-free product lines from refill stations. They include PG Tips tea bags, Kellogg’s cereals, Quaker Oats porridge, and Vimto cordial. Asda has also made some of its own-brand pasta and rice lines available in a packaging-free format.

Nestlé refill stations help reduce single-use packaging

In May 2020, Nestlé announced a pilot programme in three stores in Switzerland for in-store refill stations for soluble coffee. Customers can bring in their own reusable Nestlé jars and conveniently refill their coffee. The user-friendly system created in partnership with MIWA (Minimum Waste), a company that provides waste-free shopping solutions, also enables customers to have digital access to product information such as shelf life and ingredients.

Another form of reusable packaging is to provide an attractive and durable pack to replace single-use packaging. This packaging design concept will be particularly important where current packaging formats are not recyclable. A prime example of this is trigger spray packs, where the current multi-components trigger sprays make them difficult to recycle. The ‘refill option’ for the reusable pack is achieved by providing a lightweight recyclable refill pack.

Murray River Organics (MRO) launched a Muesli range in the Reusable PET cannister in 2020. MRO is examining opportunities to develop recyclable refill packaging to ensure their ‘Reuseable’ cannister can also be a ‘refillable’ cannister. A refill pouch can be one-way that food products can counter negative perceptions of health, safety and hygiene issues.

It is encouraging to see so many retailers and brands trialling the Reuse Model and working with their customers to find out how the world can collectively eliminate unnecessary single-use packaging pollution.

I look forward to seeing consumers embrace these programmes so that we can head towards a zero-waste world.

  • Nerida Kelton is the vice president, sustainability & save food at the World Packaging Organisation (WPO) and the executive director at the Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP)


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