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The reuse rush is underway in the circles of the circular economy.  The GreenBiz-hosted Circularity 22 conference in May was well attended with like-minded circular enthusiasts after a physical break since the inaugural event in 2019.  Back then reusable packaging was a peripheral topic on the conference agenda, while this year reusable packaging was the subject of dedicated sessions and a workshop where three consecutive panels revealed activities and insights from reuse advocates and practitioners.  The entrepreneurial spirit behind new reuse models is evident.  This is most welcomed.

There is growing admission that material recycling is neither the answer to our waste and pollution crises nor the priority focus in a circular economy.  There is also greater recognition that reuse models offer economic value-creation in addition to reducing environmental impacts.  Reuse enables economic growth decoupled from continuous raw material extraction and consumption, which is the crux of a circular economy and explains why product reuse is a preferred inner loop activity and material recycling is the last-resort outer loop.

Here are a few of observations at Circularity 22 from a reusable packaging industry perspective:

  1. Business-to-consumer packaging applications dominate the reuse conversation. This is not surprising given the focus on consumer packaging solid waste and pollution, brand engagement, and public sustainability perceptions.  However, there is a lost opportunity when excluding learnings and synergies from established business-to-business reuse models.   An often-cited barrier to reusable consumer packaging is the lack of operational infrastructure in the market.  Members of the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA) are responsible for the supply and movement of billions of reusable transport packaging products around the world each year, and this business has decades of experience with infrastructure build and systems optimization.  I have written before here that CPG companies can look to B2B to initiate reuse models and culture.  For those interested in B2B solutions and learning reuse concepts that apply to B2C as well, RPA is hosting the Reusable Packaging Pavilion and Learning Center at PACK EXPO International, October 23 – 26, in Chicago.  The annual event will assemble the most experts and exhibitors of reusable packaging products and services in the world all at one destination.
  2. Startup reuse and refill companies were largely represented on Circularity panels. The reuse perspectives mostly involved experiences during business development, pilot, and early commercial launch phases.  Access to capital and building scale were frequent discussion points.  There are valuable lessons in bringing innovative and disruptive new business models to market, and the Circularity panels were insightful on real-world conditions.  There is also room to consider issues when scale is reached as an important part of early business planning.  These issues may include accountabilities from business partners, safeguards to prevent asset theft, transitioning from system adoption to optimization, and consequences from inevitable competitive next generation products.  Addressing topics that a successful reuse model will likely encounter a year or two down the road would be helpful for startups today. 
  3. Reusable packaging systems as a component in the increasing pursuit of “circular cities” is an exciting prospect. In brief, a circular city is one that works across government departments, businesses, and residents to “eliminates waste, keeps goods and their ingredients in use and regenerates natural systems.”  Leveraging existing reuse infrastructures in population-dense areas can help to achieve scale more quickly and efficiently.  This concept is ripe for collaboration involving asset pool managers and logistics providers who manage and handle pallets and containers flowing in and out of major cities daily. 

Congratulations to the GreenBiz team on a successful Circularity 22 and thank you for fostering effective dialogue and debate on important reusable packaging topics.  RPA is proud to be a Community Partner for the conference and we look forward to continuing the conversation and learning experience on reusable packaging systems for maximum circularity.

Tim Debus
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association


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