The return of returnable packaging: New takes on an old idea are reducing plastic waste
The need for alternatives to single-use plastic packaging is more urgent than ever. The growing number of startups working to bring back the concept of returnable packaging offer one such alternative.
Picture a university dining hall and certain images come to mind – stacks of trays, steam tables, check-out registers and so on. Recently, however, students on some college campuses might have noticed a new addition to their cafeterias: a distinctive, black and green machine, somewhat resembling an ATM.
But this machine’s not dishing out cash. All it wants is your used food containers.
Known as the OZZI system, these machines are the creation of Rhode Island-based company AGreenOzzi LLC, a market leader in a new generation of startups developing reusable container systems as a sustainable alternative to single-use plastics. The OZZI system is simple: the customer pays a one-time fee of a few dollars for an “O2GO” container, fills that container with food, eats the food, and returns the container at a kiosk at any participating location in exchange for a token that can be exchanged for another clean container in the future.
OZZI machines have become an increasingly common sight in dining service areas at colleges and universities, businesses, healthcare facilities and military bases over the last ten years. During that time, the company claims, it has prevented roughly 30 million plastic containers from ending up in landfills and oceans.
With the plastic waste crisis continually becoming more severe, the need for new ideas to head off plastic waste is more urgent than ever. And there is no more important place to start than with the restaurant industry. Restaurant takeout and delivery are responsible for a huge proportion of the plastic waste we dump into our environment every year, with single-use bags, bottles, food containers and wrappers alone accounting for nearly half of all the plastic in the ocean.
Returnable packaging like that used in the OZZI system – that is, containers designed to be sent back to the retailer or manufacturer once they’ve been used, to be cleaned, refilled, and used again – is one such alternative.
Returnable packaging is not a new idea. Those of us of a certain age might remember how milk used to arrive on our doorsteps in glass bottles that were collected and returned to the dairy to be reused once we were done with their contents. Bars have long done the same thing with beer kegs. Many “refillery”-type stores insist on returnable containers when working with their suppliers to create a “closed loop” packaging system, sending the containers from which they fill their dispensers back to the manufacturers to be reused. Pallets, crates and other forms of reusable/returnable packaging are widely used in business-to-business transport, and most of us know about the deposit systems that exist for bottles and other containers in some states.
Over the last decade or so, however, a new generation of companies has sprung up across the world offering their own take on this idea, applying it in myriad different ways to a range of products.
CLUBZERØ in the United Kingdom, for example, offers a returnable packaging system for takeaway and delivery. The company partners with restaurants, cafes, offices, universities and online food delivery platforms. Customers sign up for access to a range of restaurants, choose their meals, and receive their deliveries in CLUBZERØ bags with dishes packed in reusable containers. When they’re done with their meal, they leave the used containers out for collection by the company, which washes and redistributes them for reuse. CLUBZERØ is active across Europe and North America, partnering with brands like Just Eat Takeaway, Starbucks, McDonald’s and others, and by its own analysis has so far saved 68 metric tons of carbon dioxide and more than 2.2 million single-use plastic items.
A similar system has been developed by German company ReCup/ReBowl, which has adapted the tried and tested deposit system to its own returnable packaging model. The company supplies refillable cups and bowls to cafes, restaurants and canteens within its network; customers can buy the reusable crockery from these establishments and pay a deposit, refundable when the items are returned to any retailer in RECUP’s network. Customers can also use the cups and bowls in stores outside the network or exchange used ones for clean ones at RECUP partners.
In the Netherlands, Ozarka has developed a similar model, providing reusable containers to restaurants, cafes, bars and food trucks operating delivery services. Participating restaurants receive a supply of reusable food containers, customers order either direct from the restaurant or through Ozarka’s website or app for delivery or pickup, and they then drop off their used containers at any participating restaurant or return them to the driver when they receive their next delivery. In the U.S., DeliverZero has similarly been supplying returnable takeout packaging to a growing network of restaurants (150 as of 2022) in and around New York City. Customers can return the used containers to any participating location, schedule a pickup to collect them from their home, or return them to the courier delivering their next order.
Some businesses are taking a more high-tech approach to incentivizing returnable packaging. Australian company TURN systems has developed a model whereby consumers buy a drink in a TURN “smart cup” and download an app that gives them access to the reward system of the distributing business. When they return their empty cup to a “smart collection bin,” they scan it and get points toward rewards like discounts, prizes, etc.
Other companies offering alternatives to single-use food containers include Swiss company reCIRCLE and its network of restaurants. Indonesian company Muuse has partner cafes and delivery services across Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto where users can borrow containers and return them to a network store to be reused. In Brazil, Meu Copo Eco deploys a deposit system for returnable cups and other containers at events like festivals, conferences and corporate gatherings. The list goes on.
Enabling restaurants to adopt returnable packaging at scale is tricky for a whole range of reasons, but the growth in the number of startups working to overcome those hurdles, and the growing interest from major restaurant chains and delivery services, shows that the foundations are in place. And there are policy tools that can help clear the way to build on those foundations, from bans of certain types of single use packaging to tax incentives for going reusable to taxes on new non-returnable/reusable packaging – all already tried and tested elsewhere in the world.
The business models being tested by these new startups provide hope that a return to the days before single-use plastics, when refillable and returnable packaging was widespread, might not be as far off as it might appear. As public concern about single-use plastics grows, so too should our willingness to investigate new models of more sustainable alternatives. The rise of returnable packaging offers a glimpse of what those alternatives could look like – or rather, what they do look like. Because they’re already here.
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
James Horrox is a policy analyst at Frontier Group, based in Los Angeles. He holds a BA and PhD in politics and has taught at Manchester University, the University of Salford and the Open University in his native UK. He has worked as a freelance academic editor for more than a decade, and before joining Frontier Group in 2019 he spent two years as a prospect researcher in the Public Interest Network's LA office. His writing has been published in various media outlets, books, journals and reference works.