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Return: Yay or Nay ?

In the ongoing battle against plastic waste and pollution, it’s evident that despite commendable efforts, we’re falling short of addressing this global challenge. While minimizing packaging and enhancing recycling efforts remain crucial, the true solution lies in the urgent and substantial scaling of reuse systems.

The past five years have witnessed a promising surge in industry momentum, with pilot projects marking strides in the right direction. Yet, to combat the colossal scale of plastic waste and pollution, swift and amplified action is imperative to unlock the potential of a reuse revolution.

Reuse practice (through refill or return) is not new. It has always been around for centuries all over the world. Yet, it is nowhere to become a common one. But now is the time to give it a big push.

Indeed, these reuse models not only help address the plastic waste issue but also could be the answer to how to serve economically disadvantaged groups in affordable amounts. There is no need for small plastic packaging, which actually is the main leak to the ocean, since customers can refill and pay for the exact amount they wish or return and get some money back.

Return model

Return model: Packaging and its ownership return to business. Business also takes care of cleaning and maintaining packaging.

Return from home

Return on the go


In this model, most often, consumers buy products and subscribe to pick-up services; after the use phase, businesses will take back the empty ones in exchange for new one. The used one will be cleaned, refilled at the business operation location, and ready for the new loop. There are many successful examples in this model, especially E-commerce entities with groceries, ready-meal, personal care, etc.

In this model, consumers need to carry and return packaging at drop-off points or stores after their use phase. That's why it works best for traditional retail shops in urban areas with available drop-off points.


  • Superior design aims to improve user experience through a unique look, multi-functionality

  • Deposit & reward through a deposit & reward scheme for reusable packaging.

  • Share design with other products/brands to optimize the operation and economic of scale in terms of distribution and logistics.

  • Deposit & reward

  • Share design

  • Smart system


  • Sufficient reverse logistics, cleaning, and refilling infrastructure

  • Incentivize deposit & reward scheme with an affordable original price

  • Develop a real-time tracking system.

  • Good scheme deposit & reward.

  • Accessible return point & easy process

  • Reverse logistic & tracking system.

Environmental benefits

  • Transitioning from single-use to returnable plastic packaging yields substantial reductions in GHG emissions across all scenarios, reaching up to 69% in rigid-to-rigid packaging shifts.

  • Despite the water usage during the washing stage of each reuse cycle, the overall water consumption diminishes because the water utilized to produce a single-use packaging unit is 2 to 7 times higher.

  • Shifting from rigid single-use to rigid returnable packaging significantly slashes plastic volumes by 54% to 76% across various scenarios. This shift also precipitates a remarkable 90% decrease in waste generation.

In this post, we will focus on how to scale up the Return on the go model.

What are performance drivers?

A recent study from Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that there are 3 main drivers.

  1. Scale and shared infrastructure: Collaborative infrastructure utilization, encompassing collection, sorting, cleaning, and transportation, promises cost efficiencies. Streamlined experiences for customers through unified collection channels are pivotal, eliminating barriers posed by diverse collection methods.

  2. Packaging standardization and pooling: Standardizing packaging for specific product types significantly amplifies the efficiency of sorting, cleaning, and storage. Additionally, pooling packaging drastically reduces transportation distances, cutting associated emissions and costs. Brand and product differentiation can still be achieved through labels and closures within this standardized framework.

  3. High return rates: Incentivizing returns and ensuring a seamless customer experience are paramount to boosting return rates. Collaboration among all stakeholders is crucial for the success of such business models, emphasizing the necessity of retrieving packaging from customers.

Embracing a reuse revolution isn’t just a trend—it’s a necessity. The collective commitment from industry leaders, public entities, and financial sectors is vital to foster this change. Together, we can redefine our relationship with plastic, paving the way toward a sustainable, waste-free future.


  1. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Unlocking a reuse revolution: scaling returnable packaging (2023).

  2. Plastic, Plastic packaging, Reuse, Refill & Return model.




I started Sustainability House with the goal of offering readers a glimpse into my thoughts and experiences. What started out as weekly posts have evolved into a dynamic site packed with information about various topics that are near and dear to me. Take some time to explore the blog and see for yourself what makes you curious and eager.


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