Reuse models make packaging circular and reduce the environmental impact. The return to reuse method makes RePack unbeatable in environmental performance, both in reduced CO2 but also in waste. This was the conclusion of a report, published by Fashion For Good in collaboration with Zalando, Otto and Utrecht University.
The report highlights what every single e-commerce player wants and what is important to them:
- Reduce the environmental burden
- Decrease virgin material dependency
- Limit plastic waste and pollution
- Reduce GHG emissions
- Offer a unique customer experience
Drivers of change
Consumers: A recent survey from the International Post Corporation found that over 60% of respondents want parcels to use sustainable packaging.
Brands: 56% of the signatories of the New Plastic Economy Global Commitments are planning to test reuse models in the coming years.
Logistic providers: DHL too stated that transitioning to reusable solutions across the industry was a priority for the future logistics industry.
The demand is there, but so far, there's been a lack of in-depth, external case studies on reusable packaging to help brands, retailers, and consumers make informed choices. Until now.
Summary of Fashion For Good reusable packaging study
“Transitioning from single-use to reusables helps to eliminate plastic waste and pollution, as well as potentially offering significant greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions.” - Fashion For Good
The overall conclusion is that reusable packaging is clearly advantageous, with several benefits.
For every returned RePack, we remove the need to manufacture new packaging when RePack is returned to reuse in letter size.
While reusable packaging models have benefits but key factors must be considered to ensure reuse is the unbeatable alternative to single-use packaging.
What is being compared in the study?
Fashion For Good ran the first test to demonstrate where the impact occurs within the lifecycle of each system – known otherwise as the impact hotspots. Data from RePack customers Zalando and Otto were used in the study.
In doing so, the test clarified the absolute difference in emissions and eco-costs associated with each method.
Four models were compared:
- Single-use system for cardboard boxes
- Single-use system for polybags
- Centralized Reuse systems like RePack
- Decentralized Reuse System
The Single-use system
Globalisation has meant that packages are travelling further, through longer and more complex logistics networks. Whilst the current system is highly optimised and convenient in delivering packages to the consumer, the infrastructure does not yet exist to ensure the packaging used is reused or recycled.
A reusable system that utilises an additional node* for packaging to pass-through for cleaning, maintenance or other purposes - separate from the distribution centre. It is usually operated by the reusable packaging provider.
A reusable system that does not utilise an additional node for packaging - all cleaning or maintenance takes place within the distribution centre, i.e. is not centralised in one place.
* An additional connection point between two parts of the supply chain. In this context, it is used to refer to the cleaning and maintenance stage in the centralised reusable system.
The main findings of the study
The study showed that reusable models perform better than single-use packaging, considering return rates, recycled content and distances travelled.
FFG analyzed scenarios where the travelled distances are increased, and where the non-return rate is increased both in decentralized and centralized systems. Those analyses also evaluate how reuse performs when the single-use packaging recycled content is increased.
The results show simply recycling is not enough, something we have covered in here.
Decentralized reuse systems give greater tolerance to distance and non-return rate and the return rate of reusable packaging is central to its sustainability performance.
Comparison results: Reuse vs. single-use
In a centralised system reusable packaging has 57% smaller carbon footprint per cycle compared with a virgin LDPE mailer and 39% when compared to a recycled LDPE mailer.
In a decentralized system, like the one we have with Decathlon, reuse performs even better.
In a decentralized system reusable packaging has 82% smaller carbon footprint per cycle when compared with a virgin LDPE mailer, and 72% fewer compared to a recycled LDPE mailer.
In all scenarios, less plastic waste (by weight) is generated when using reusable mailers rather than single-use plastic mailers, regardless of the recycled content of plastic packaging.
LDPE mailers are a fossil-fuel derived, non-renewable resource that poses grave threats to the environment beyond carbon emissions.
Whilst LDPE mailers can have a lower carbon footprint than cardboard, and in some cases, reusable packaging, the lower recycling rates suggest they are further from achieving key circularity ambitions.
Reuse is more sustainable than cardboard. Always.
When compared to cardboard, 100% virgin, or 89% recycled, reuse always scores better in terms of CO2 emissions.
However, despite the greater carbon emissions of cardboard, environmental impact is a multifaceted issue that must be evaluated as such and we have covered that topic in this article.
What next? How to scale reuse?
According to Fashion for Good, below are the key aspects to ensure that reusable packaging scales in an environmentally and economically viable manner.
Scaling reuse requires collaboration between innovators, 3PL companies and brands to increase the density of return points and place customer-centricity at the heart of the reusable system.
We agree will all those points, in fact, they reflect perfectly our Impact statement, and those 3 aspects are things we work on actively.
Communication is key to ensuring a high return rate
Getting packaging returned is a behavioural change that requires a fundamental re-thinking of how we currently interact with packaging.
“Reusable packaging is more complicated than just sending a package back and forth - there is a key consumer education piece to increase return rates.”
Karla Jabben, Corporate Reponsibility Manager, Otto
There is no silver-bullet approach to communication, but instead, it is specific to the brand’s consumer group, this must be worked on collaboratively with brands.
Cooperation - between all stakeholders across the value chain
Brands and retailers should pilot with reusable packaging innovators and 3PL companies to test and iterate on applicable processes to fit their supply chain needs.
“To make reusable packaging work, it’s not something that Zalando can do by itself, it requires packaging innovators and the consumers” - Andrea Roxin, Manager Environmental Sustainability, Zalando
No one company or innovator can instigate the change alone — it requires collaboration with all relevant stakeholders to move the needle forward. All must be willing to be transparent and to allow collaborators to see how the systems operate.
Optimization - recycled contents, return points, etc.
Moving to a less centralized system is more optimal, as it reduces transportation distances and thus emissions.
Decentralisation also means increasing the number and type of return points. The benefit of doing so is multi-faceted; on one hand, it increases the convenience for consumer returns, whilst also helping to reduce the costs associated with reverse logistics.
Product design is also important, ensuring a high recycled content of the packaging, ease of use, etc..
Study in more detail
There is a lot more to cover in this Fashion For Good report. We recommend that you read the 42 pages if you want to go take a deep dive in reusable packaging modelling.