How businesses could cut plastic waste with a track and trace system

Many businesses came to a halt with the outbreak of the disease at the beginning of the epidemic; the market of disposable plastic packaging was projected to grow by 5.5 percent in the years after the need for plastics that are single use increased. Before COVID-19, the market was forecast to expand by four percent per year up to 2027. Because of all the products we purchase and discard each year, the average household living in the UK can be responsible for 99 kg of waste plastic every year.

When people discuss the need to reduce plastic waste, typically, they are able to offer only a limited view of possibilities that exist, such as recycling bottles and shopping bags. Most of the time, people focus on the things the consumer can accomplish. However, to stop tonnes of plastic from being created just to be discarded, businesses need to make sure that people are able to reuse and refill their products and packaging, including ready-to-eat meals and soft drinks to eyeliner and shampoo.

This could mean a system in which people don’t purchase plastic containers that are disposable and instead have manufacturers and retailers collect them to refill and later returned to the store floor. For many items, the container could be used many times. This isn’t something consumers could do by themselves – it demands retailers, manufacturers and health and safety regulators to work together.

Zero-waste stores allow customers to fill up reusable containers, however many people still purchase items that come in disposable packaging. Olesia Bekh/Shutterstock

Supply chains that reverse

Today, companies take raw materials, create an item and then distribute it to customers in a single-use package that is then recycled. In a circular model that reuses plastic, companies would also need to clean, collect, then store, refill, and redistribute the packaging. These steps are costly and pose new risks to the company.

Safety and health is one of the main concerns for sellers of drinks, food items and cosmetics. In a supply chain with a linear structure that is regulated, the process of compliance is fairly easy. Every product packaging, such as shampoo bottles or a pre-made curry tray, must have an individual label in the event that there’s a defective batch that has to be recalled because of an allergen that is not labeled or bacteria contamination. The packaging can be labeled at the time of filling and then taken away. For circular economics, there must be an option to label the different batches of items that are placed within containers of the same type.

Nivea introduced the replenishment station for shower gel in Hamburg, Germany in 2020. Customers can return their shampoo bottles and refill it at the shop the machine prints out a label to identify the particular batch. It is still assumed that customers perform the bulk of the work, which includes removing and adding stickers to ensure that their product complies with health and safety standards.

In order to ensure that everyone is able reuse items requires more sophisticated solutions. One of the first steps is for companies to monitor their packaging using the use of a digital product passport. This is basically the unique QR code that is scann at various points along the product’s journey: when it’s returned back to the shop, after it’s been cleaned and replenished by the manufacturer in the warehouse, and then when it’s returned to the shop or placed on the internet. It will also be scrutinized numerous times, allowing companies to prove that they are conforming to health and safety regulations. Each package will be identified and removed when there is a contamination issue with batches of curry or shampoo.

Digital passports are scanned after products are returned to stores clean, refilled, and then purchased again. Reath Author supplied

New business models for businesses

Digital product passports may also assist businesses to determine whether reusable packaging is profitable. The process of calculating the price of a single-use packaging is easy. The cardboard takeaway container can cost as little as 20p to create, and the money is used to pay for the meal you takeaway. With the use of reusable packaging, companies could recover the cost and save some cash if the curry box can be reused and used a number of times.

However, reusable packaging is likely to cost more per container due to the fact that it has to be constructed more durable. Takeaway containers that are reused may cost about 25 percent higher than disposable containers to produce. However, that doesn’t mean businesses will recover the entire cost and start to earn a profit when the container is used 25 times. There are additional costs like energy and labor, which are needed to take, store, and clean the container. While these could be put into a spreadsheet to calculate the price per use of reusable containers but businesses will not have the ability to know the true cost until they can monitor their packages and figure the return rate. Return rates can differ widely according to the item, as well as the ease to return the item, and even on the culture of the country. Without tracking investment, it is difficult to find examples to look at.

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