Making reusable packaging at scale a reality

Adopting reusable packaging for fast moving consumer goods would create a huge opportunity to keep valuable resources in circulation for as long as possible before the need to be recycled. PragmatIC and our partners are working on a ground-breaking project that seeks to enable reuse at scale. In this blog post Joshua Young, our Circular Economy Manager, gains insights from some of the partners involved.

Introducing TRACE

There have been examples of reuse schemes being trialled for specific products, campaigns, and events, but we are yet to see widespread roll-out of reusable packaging that is accessible anywhere, anytime. According to the 2021 Ellen MacArthur's Global Commitment report, less than 2% of the packaging used by the leading global FMCG brands is considered reusable. One reason for the slow adoption is that the transition from single use to reusable packaging is challenging. Making reuse at scale a reality requires creating a new norm for how consumers perceive the retail experience and changing how the whole supply chain handles packaging.

The TRACE (Technology-enabled Reusable Assets for a Circular Economy) project funded by the Innovate UK Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge, aims to address the key challenges in this transition by using PragmatIC’s ultra-low-cost flexible electronics, making it viable for any packaging to be smart and connected using Near Field Communications (NFC) technology.

TRACE brings together academic and industry partners with expertise in various areas that are key to addressing the challenges ahead. Here some of these partners share their thoughts.

Insights

RECOUP’s Head of Sustainability & Circularity, Katherine Fleet, said: “Consumers are used to a disposable lifestyle, so it will take a major shift and a lot of trust in reuse systems for consumers to adopt at scale. The increased transparency and traceability provided through a digitalised system can provide confidence to drive consumer and industry adoption. We are looking to produce a blueprint for a reuse system for food packaging that can be implemented and replicated at scale, meeting the requirement needs of all stakeholders across the value chain.”

Professor Thomas Webb at The University of Sheffield concurs and noted that: “One challenge is encouraging large organisations (e.g., retailers) to trial these reuse systems. Reuse systems make more sense at scale and when standardised, due to the efficiencies that this permits within the system, including making reuse simpler for the consumers who can borrow and return containers in a range of places. It will also be important to investigate how to design robust, reusable packaging that incorporates digital tracking technologies, and to test how packaging is affected by washing and repeated use.”

Dr Michael Groves, CEO of Topolytics commented: “The reverse logistics required for reuse requires new collection systems, recovery technologies and, of course, operational data. As we have seen in other new businesses, data is the oil – but it needs to be turned into actionable insights. Businesses will be able to use the data to help them make better commercial and environmental decisions about the material they produce, move and process. We are excited to be part of TRACE to use our platform and expertise to help plan and operate a reuse system within the project.” 

Bobby Manesh, Lead Research Engineer at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) Cymru, added: "For reuse to become a reality across a wide range of food and drink product categories, consumers will want to be able to return any packaging anywhere. Automated identification and the sorting of packaging throughout the system is critical to ensure packaging is safe and gets back to where it needs to be in the supply-chain to be reused.”

Next steps  

PragmatIC is proud to be working with such great partners. Our aim is to accelerate the necessary innovation in technology to enable new circular business models, and data is key to making these changes. This project will enable us to generate real world data to determine that digitally enabled reuse models can be implemented at scale, and in a way that delivers significant environmental benefits. Together we will be undertaking research and trials to be able to define practical blueprints for processes and technologies that can drive adoption of reusable packaging systems more widely. This will allow supermarkets and FMCG giants to run reuse programmes at an unprecedented scale, representing a huge step change for the retail industry in the move towards true circularity. I look forward to bringing you updates on our progress in future blog posts.

If you would like to read more about the TRACE project please go here