How can we engage the public in reusable and refillable packaging?

Packaging keeps products safe and fresh, but uses a lot of resources and, when discarded, generates a significant environmental impact.

Reusable and refillable packaging could solve this, but they will only be effective if people engage with them.

The All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group and the Sustainable Resource Forum, in partnership with The University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, held a roundtable to discuss consumers’ attitudes towards reusable packaging and how government and industry can enable change. 

The session considered how best to engage people and change consumer behaviour and explored how to overcome the hygiene and practicality challenges, as perceptions of these challenges are often a barrier to take-up of reuse and refill solutions.

The session was chaired by Andrew Percy MP, with a range of speakers from academia, industry and charity. 

Participants heard that hygiene concerns remain a problem. Consumers are only willing to tolerate very slight signs of use on reusable containers, even when they are completely clean. Interestingly, participants felt that consumers were more likely to tolerate signs of use if the container belonged to them. However, it is less convenient for consumers to ask them to carry their own containers. For this reason, participants suggested that it could be a solution to offer both options: either consumers can bring their own containers for reuse and refill, or they should also have the option of purchasing and then returning a reusable container offered by the company or restaurant.

Reference was made to recent legislative actions to reduce single-use plastic, such as the charges for plastic bags in supermarkets and moves against single-use plastic straws. These were pointed to as effective ways of changing behaviour on a national scale.

In the end, a participant argued, the critical turning point will be the economics - it needs to make economic sense for companies and consumers to transition to reusable and refillable packaging over single use.

The findings of the session feed into an ongoing Policy Connect inquiry into the role of reusable and refillable packaging in moving the UK towards a circular economy.