Reduce, reuse and retail: rethinking plastic and packaging

There’s a popular saying, “waste not, want not” but in the current climate where we as consumers can get anything we want at any time, what does that say about our waste — want much, waste much?

The problem with plastics and packaging

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 23% of landfill waste is from containers and packaging. Plastics, while an economical and convenient material, are slow to decompose; they’re killing our marine life and their toxins creep right back into the human food chain.

People have quite rightly become more seriously concerned with environmental issues and the damaging effects of so much waste caused by our habits as consumers. Legislation is now increasing around the world. The US has introduced bans and fees on plastic bags specifically. And in the EU, the European Parliament voted in favour of reducing plastic waste by 2025, targeting single-use plastics and containers — things like straws, cutlery and burger boxes. With these stricter regulations, retailers are being forced to reevaluate packaging choices and find ways to go green.

Online shopping and prepackaged food are major waste offenders. Before eCommerce, traditional logistics involved bulk shipping to a warehouse or store. But now, with options for same-day and two-day shipping, more and more individual items are being packaged for delivery. Fast Company reported that approximately 165 bn packages are shipped in the US annually. That’s more than 1 bn trees. And it’s not uncommon to see an individually wrapped cucumber or a clamshell package of cherry tomatoes when grocery shopping. While this makes shopping more convenient for consumers — and provides a way for retailers and vendors to easily track inventory — it isn’t exactly in line with the goals to reduce waste.

Hence, the rise of zero-waste stores and package-free products. 

The challenges retailers face regarding package-free products

Eliminating prepackaged food and implementing reusable packaging solutions could be a $10+ billion innovation opportunity, according to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But no packaging also means no extended shelf-life. And food still needs to be shipped in bags and boxes for protection. Vendors also still need to have insight into product freshness. Without packaging to protect, track and monitor inventory, retailers will have a difficult time complying with product safety standards, recalls and policies, and regulations specific to bulk sales.

Bulk-style bins and dispensers where consumers can buy the amount they need are a popular solution for zero-waste stores. They’ve been received well in the EU especially, with more than 100 shops opening across the UK over the past two years. The support of the new EU-wide rules may have a leading role in the general success.  

But, zero-waste stores are also still in the early stages — with most in pilot phase in the US, where bans and fees related to plastic use vary on a state-by-state basis. The lack of business cases is a serious deterrent for vendors and retailers. There are four reuse models in terms of packaging:

  1. Refill at home. Users have a reusable container and the company delivers refills to users through a subscription service.
  2. Refill on the go. Users have a reusable container they refill at a dispensing location.
  3. Return from home. Reusable packaging is delivered to and picked up from users through a service.
  4. Return on the go. Users return reusable packaging to a drop-off/deposit location.

Each of these models has their own challenges, specifically in terms of traceability and motivating customers to buy in to the zero-waste culture. Though many countries operate reverse vending solutions giving money back on bottles, this is a process the UK left behind many years ago. Perhaps it is time to resurrect this.

How to track and trace package-free and deposit products

Despite the challenges retailers face, there are opportunities to benefit by moving toward a zero-waste model. The advanced technology solutions that are available to retailers today can give businesses more insight into user preferences while enabling them to deliver a unique user experience.

Market Research Future reported the global smart packaging market is about $46.74 billion, with a CAGR of 5.16% from 2017 through to 2023. Smart packaging uses sensors or smart labels to monitor product quality, storage conditions, freshness and shelf-life. And radio-frequency identification (RFID)-based packaging can trace the origin and whether any contamination or tampering occurred.

Online retail orders can be shipped in reusable packaging or crates integrated with a tracking system. The tracking system can pair with a mobile app to gather valuable customer insights. And with RFID chips installed in products and smart return stations, tracing when and where a user returns a product becomes simple. On the user-end, the app provides an overview of the closest drop-off location, any acquired credits and environmental savings to maintain user engagement levels.

With smart-powered packaging, all participants across the supply chain get the real-time data they need about products, enabling full control over the flow of packaging and materials — improving supply chain efficiency and operational convenience.

Learn more about creating smart retail solutions by visiting this link.

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