Returnable packaging, designing for a circular economy.

We know that 100% recyclable is not enough, that we need to move away from relying on virgin materials and to design for a circular economy.
December 2, 2021

We know that 100% recyclable is not enough, that we need to move away from relying on virgin materials and to design for a circular economy. In Europe, 40% of plastics and 50% of paper is used for packaging so the sheer amount of raw material that is required for packaging alone is huge.

As designers, we come in at the start of each new product's life, we hold (to a certain extent) the decision of how the product will impact both planet and people. It is either designed for a circular economy or not.  This thought piece explores what returnable packaging is, the positives, where the hold-ups lie, and investigates how we can design to solve the under-pinning issues, to enable returnable packaging to become a mainstream option.

What is returnable packaging?

In its simplest form, returnable packaging is a method of delivering a product where the packaging is re-collected to be re-used, either for another product or sent to another customer, keeping the material in an almost endless cycle of use.

Brands such as Loop, re-use, and Lush offer different packaging solutions to create a closed-loop system. These include designing for re-use, using materials with a longer life than the cardboard alternative, and are designed to feedback into an existing recycling infrastructure.

Instead of simply dumping the packaging in the bin, customers are often encouraged to return it through a monetary incentive, such as a deposit, and by removing all possible barriers; ensuring the packaging is ready to be posted back. The benefits of designing for re-use include environmental, financial, and social benefits.

It’s a no-brainer, right? Why would you not design for a circular economy?  As incentivizing as all these benefits sound, the well-thought-through designs for a product to be part of a circular economy, once out of the shop, depends on the consumer ‘playing their part.’

At present, we as designers are in control of the first part of each product’s life. The other half is in the hands of the consumer. Take the plastic bag as an example. Patented by Swedish company Celloplast in 1965 as a way save trees. Paper bags were on the make, take, and waste trajectory, and so the plastic bag was developed, made from a material that would last for years and years.

A product designed to last much longer, but with no consideration for changing consumer behavior, resulted in the make, take waste model, transcending to the plastic bag. But what if the plastic bag had been designed to change a behavior? - To re-educate the user into how plastic should be treated. Could this have set us on a different trajectory for how we use and dispose of plastic and packaging?

So spread the word, let’s put some positivity into plastic, after all, it’s not plastic that’s the baddy, we’re the baddies when we don’t reduce, reuse and recycle it! Don’t be a baddy, be a Lushie and claim your 50p deposit!”  

- Lush 2021

Lush’s new slogan for the bring-back scheme. They are using a monetary incentive to change behavior, and re-educate. Without behavioral change, we can not move forward. Yet without product change, we do not have the chance to change our behavior.  These examples highlight the importance of designing for both a circular economy alongside the behavior of the consumer. This connection of designing for behavioral change could be fundamental to creating more ‘sustainable’ and circular products.


Emma Lacey

Emma is a freelance sustainability consultant and ex-Morrama designer.