How companies could reduce plastic waste by using a track-and-trace system

People tend to focus on a small number of options when they talk about reducing waste. For example, using reusable shopping bags or bottles. Most often, the focus of plastic waste reduction is on what consumers can doBusinesses need in order to stop tonnes of plastic from being produced just to be thrown out. This includes everything from shampoos and eyeliner to ready meals, soft drinks, and even cosmetics.

It would be an alternative to buying new plastic disposable containers. Instead, retailers and manufacturers could collect these and refill them before returning them to the store. This same container could be used hundreds of times for many products. Customers can’t achieve this on their own. Manufacturers, retailers, and health and safety regulators must work together.

Zero-waste stores let customers fill up reusable containers. However, most people still purchase products in disposable packaging. Olesia Bekh/Shutterstock

Reverse supply chains

Businesses currently take raw materials and make a product, then distribute it in packaging for single use that is thrown away. In a circular economy, where plastics are reused, businesses will also need to collect, clean, and store these packaging, as well as refill them. All of these steps are expensive and pose new risks to the business.

Retailers of cosmetics, food, and drinks are most concerned about the safety of their products. Compliance with regulators in a linear supply is relatively easy. Every product package, be it a shampoo or curry tray, must have its own unique label. This is to ensure that a batch of contaminated products or allergens is not overlooked. Packaging can be marked only once when it is filled and thrown away. For a circular economic system, it is necessary to re-label the different batches of products distributed in a container.

Nivea will launch a shower gel refill station in Hamburg, Germany, by 2020. The customer returns the shampoo bottle to the shop and refills it. A machine prints a sticker that identifies the batch. Customers will still be expected to do most of the work, including adding and removing labels in order to make sure their reusable products meet health and safety standards.

Elegant solutions will be needed to ensure that everyone can reuse all products. Businesses can track their packaging using a digital passport. It is a QR code that can be scanned in key stages of the product journey. This includes when the product is returned to the store, when the manufacturer cleans and refills the product at the warehouse, or when the item has been ordered online. Businesses will be able to prove that they comply with health and safety standards by scanning the packaging hundreds of times. Each package can be identified, and any contaminated shampoos or curries can be recalled.

When products are returned, cleaned, refilled, and repurchased, digital passports can be scanned. Reath Author provided

New Business Models

Digital product passports are also a great way for businesses to determine if reusable packaging makes sense. It is easy to calculate the cost of single-use packaging. The cost to manufacture a cardboard takeaway container is 20 pence. This money will be added to the price of your takeaway. Businesses could save money and recover costs by using reusable packaging.

Reusable packaging costs more per unit, as it needs to be more durable. The cost of making reusable takeaway containers can be 25 times higher than disposable ones. This does not mean the business can make a profit after reusing the container 25 times. Additional costs, such as energy and labor, are needed to clean, refill, and store the packaging. These costs can be calculated in order to calculate the cost per usage of reusable packaging. However, businesses will not know the real price until they track the package and learn the return rate. Return rates can vary greatly depending on the product, the ease of returning the box, and even cultural norms. There are few case studies available without tracking.

Reusable packaging poses a variety of new risks to businesses. How can you create packaging that is able to be dropped, frozen, and heated up to 200 and claim it will still meet the specifications it had when first manufactured? How can you create a supply chain that allows at least half of your shampoo bottles to be returned and refilled 400 times?

Digital product passports, which allow businesses to track the number of times packaging can be reused as well as how often customers return it, are a great way to solve both of these problems. These ideas must now be put into action by businesses.

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