A retrospective on reusability: Can packaging of the past inspire innovation?


The proliferation of single-use plastics has led to a crisis of plastic pollution. There are an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, which will take years to break down. As consumers wake up to the reality of a global environmental catastrophe, more CPG brands are focusing on sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic. 

This post looks at the history of packaging. Could materials used in the past solve the growing problem of single-use plastic waste?

A rich history of glass bottles

In 2012, Coca-Cola filled the last of its refillable glass bottles. The soft drink giant started using reusable glass containers in the 60s. Over time, the use of these bottles has declined. According to Coca-Cola, few customers returned the bottles, which meant using them no longer made sense. 

The original rationale for using those classic bottles had little to do with environmental concerns or the circular economy. Over time, PET bottles, cans, and Tetra-Pak containers gradually replaced glass bottles. Soft drinks manufacturers switched to plastic, and the industry vouched to increase efforts to reclaim and recycle plastic. 

However, to borrow a line from the indie film, The Platform, "Change never happens spontaneously." Although the use of plastic grew, brands did not offer consumers additional incentives to recycle. Moreover, the world does not have the infrastructure to recycle scalably. The gradual phasing out of the original Coke bottles led to growing volumes of single-use plastic ending up in the landfill. On average, PET bottles take at least 450 years to biodegrade. Consequently, at the end of 2020, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé were named the top plastic polluters for the third year in a row, according to The Guardian

Could classic bottles make a comeback?

Could it be possible to revert to the glass bottle? Recent trends indicate there is much more focus on the impact of single-use plastic on the planet. Increasing concern over the environment could provide an incentive for consumers to return refillable bottles. Research from YouGov highlights that eight in ten consumers are trying to reduce their plastic waste, and 50% would be willing to pay more for eco-friendly packaging. Generation-Z showed the most awareness of their carbon footprint, as half of the respondents in this second group were aged 18-24. 

There is further evidence to show that reusable containers have the potential to make a reappearance. In 2018, the BBC reported dairy firms across the UK saw a surge in demand for glass milk bottles due to growing concern over plastic waste. 

A sense of nostalgia also drives the use of glass bottles, whether this relates to Coke globally or milk in Britain. For Coca-Cola in India, glass bottles retained a 35% share of sales in 2015. Furthermore, these vintage bottles are an iconic symbol of Coke's rich heritage and brand history. Coke bottles were even crucial to the storyline in the finale of the American TV series, Mad Men. 

Glass vs. plastic vs. other materials 

Assessing the sustainability of glass bottles versus other types of materials is by no means an easy task. Aside from the environmental impact, reusable glass containers have additional advantages. Glass bottles preserve the flavor better and are far more hygienic. 

Moreover, reusable packaging is often made from higher-quality materials and looks and feels more sophisticated due to its aesthetic appeal. High-end soft drink manufacturers prefer to encase luxury products in glass for this very reason. 

The cost logistics of return is a barrier to using reusable glass containers. In India, PepsiCo introduced cola in non-returnable glass bottles. However, the brand restricted non-reusable glass bottles to premium products rather than beverages aimed at the mass market. The beverage company instead encouraged consumers to reuse the bottles at home.  

From a manufacturing point of view, plastic is lightweight, lower cost, and resistant to breakage. Glass bottles, on the other hand, are more expensive to produce. Supply chain issues help to explain why manufacturers are moving away from glass bottles. We spoke to Saad Khan, National Planning Director, at the creative advertising agency, FCB Ulka, who noted:

"The other issue why brands are moving away from glass is the supply chain. The bottles need to come back to the plant for refilling. And if the stock does not move, the plants cannot refill the containers. Also, the washing process of glass bottles consumes resources, water, for example, which might hit sustainability in a hidden way."

Despite the good intentions, the environmental benefits of glass bottles versus plastic are not clear-cut. Waste charity, Wrap, told the BBC that consumers would need to reuse each glass bottle at least 20 times to justify the additional carbon footprint of manufacturing glass versus a plastic container. 

Applying circular principles to the packaging problem 

Although producing glass bottles has a bigger carbon footprint than manufacturing plastic containers, encouraging reuse could provide an element of circularity that could lead to a more ecological outcome. If reusable glass bottles became the industry standard, a refillable glass bottle reused 25 times would consume 93% less energy than a single-use glass bottle. 

However, given the environmental issues with both glass and plastic, there is potential for disruptive innovation in the industry, with emerging start-ups creating an alternative to glass bottles, plastic containers, and cans. The Danish company, Paboco, has developed a recyclable paper bottle as an alternative to single-use plastic. The bottle uses wood fibers and aims to be at the forefront of sustainable drink packaging. 

Reusable bottles still have a way to go when it comes to improving manufacturing efficiency and minimizing waste through breakage. However, consumer trends seem to be heading in the right direction. An in-depth consideration of the impact of packaging on the climate is the first step towards better environmental outcomes and more sustainable supply chains.  

Brands must incentivize reuse.

Reusable bottles have the potential to reduce the impact of plastic pollution. However, for packaging to be scalable, brands must provide incentives for consumers to change their behavior. Incentivizing customers would boost brand buy-in and produce more favorable outcomes for sustainability. Businesses today must modernize strategies from previous eras, taking into account shifting consumer attitudes. 

Many consumers yearn for a more personalized, local service, with products delivered to their door. There are opportunities for brands to offer greater convenience with the bonus of more sustainable outcomes. Delivery and collection could tackle issues with returning bottles. The added convenience of automated product delivery could drive sustainable buying behavior. 

Start-up, Loop, is capitalizing on the convenience of home delivery. The company delivers reusable packaging for FMCG goods to the front door. As well as being high-quality and functional, the packaging has a strong visual appeal. After use, customers put the containers back into reusable tote bags outside their door. Loop collects the packaging, professionally cleans them, and prepares the boxes for reuse. 

The Indian history of dabbawalas inspires food delivery networks.

Reusability has been native to India for centuries. Limited resources often provide the fodder for reusability business models to take hold. The tiffin box is well established in India, coined by Mahadeo Havaji Bacche back in 1890. 

The home-made lunches, or dabbas, are presented in round metal tins, with different dishes presented in each of the four or five tiers. The dabba delivery system distributes an estimated 80 million lunches a year. Dabbawalas collect tins of food early in the morning, transporting the boxes around cities ready for lunch. The dabbas are then returned and collected after delivery. 

Dabbawalas have inspired UK-based DabbaDrop. The company has initiated a minimum waste food delivery system. The team delivers takeaways in steel, reusable boxes, which delivery staff swap out at each order. Since the business launched in November 2018, the company has saved 17,820 plastic containers to date.

In summary 

  • The jury is still out on the environmental impact of glass versus plastic. 
  • Packaging from the past could inspire new types of reusable containers. 
  • Advances in material science and new business models are changing the game in the consumer-goods industry. 
  • Disruptive innovation is the key to unlocking sustainable global futures. 

Our mission at Circklo is to accelerate sustainability while embedding the principles of circular economy throughout the business world. If you are interested in any one of these trends and want to develop your own start up to help solve an industry problem, consider applying now to our Business Configurator Programme for early stage start ups.

We are looking to accelerate starts ups for profit and impact in the areas of:

  • Non financial metrics calculators and track and trace platforms
  • Sustainable Food and Beverage companies
  • Sustainable Fashion companies
  • Recycling and reuse of resources (i.e. plastic, metals)
  • Financial technology (Fintech)

Circklo wants to extend this list of trends and also incorporate your views, please follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn and let’s continue the conversation.

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