Did the pandemic halt consumer interest in reuse?

Though the first reaction to the pandemic saw customers choosing single-use over reuse due to falsely perceived lower standards of hygiene, the move away from reuse might actually have been overblown in sustainable circles.

Contrary to popular opinion, research has shown that the pandemic has actually heightened interest in the climate crisis. People are keenly aware that the crisis has not stopped since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, as knowledge about the virus has increased, scientists have confirmed that reusables are safe to use (following basic hygiene practices), re-opening up the market for reusables. This is not the time to win back public opinion around reuse, it’s already there! Instead, this is the perfect momentum to change and “build back better” towards a new normal, shifting the current linear business model into a circular model. But where did this idea that customers have abandoned reuse come from?

First reactions to COVID-19 did lead to an increase in single-use plastics

As the pandemic first started to spread, so did an initial feeling of panic due to the lack of information surrounding the virus, and many miscommunications or fake news circulating off- and online.

People started “panic-buying”, emptying supermarket shelves quicker than they

 could be restocked. Single-use plastics were thought of as more hygienic and, due to fears of contracting the virus from surfaces, many consumers started buying single-use plastics, moving away from reusable alternatives.

Even people committed to a zero-waste lifestyle found it initially difficult to stand by their values, ending up buying disposable items.  

This led to a critical increase in plastic production, followed by increased pollution and leakage of plastics in the environment. Alongside plastic bottles, cups and straws, new plastic items are now polluting our streets, lands and oceans: masks and gloves. 

While the initial lockdowns appeared to have reduced CO2 emissions, the coronavirus pandemic sparked a rush for single-use plastic.

Data brought reusable back to the market

However as time passed, people slowly adjusted to “the new normal” and further research on the virus brought into light new information about its transmission. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the coronavirus survives in a transmittable form on all surfaces – including plastic. Therefore, the key to a COVID-19-proof product relies on good sanitation practices, rather than the choice of single-use over reusable packaging.

In June 2020, over 100 scientists from all over the world came together to sign a statement to reassure the public that reusables are safe to use during the pandemic. Underlining the harmful impact plastic has along its entire supply chain, scientists have confirmed that as long as properly sanitized, reusable items can be used to protect health without harming the environment.

Complementing this, a survey from BCG has shown that the pandemic has actually heightened people’s environmental awareness. Nowadays people are more concerned than ever about addressing environmental challenges and increasingly more committed to changing their own behavior towards a more sustainable lifestyle than before COVID-19.

After reviewing these data, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that consumers’ interest in reuse has not waned with the pandemic. 

On the contrary, reuse has been confirmed to be one of the circular economy trends that defined 2020 by Greezbiz. As the reuse movement is getting bigger and bigger, 2020 has witnessed a marked increase in investments in the field. For example, TerraCycle has announced that it has raised $25 million for its global reuse platform Loop and in Indonesia, the National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP) has confirmed that upstream innovations to reuse and reduce plastic present a business opportunity worth $4.3 billion. There is a growing recognition that reuse solutions are both good for the environment, and an increased understanding of their potential to generate cost-saving opportunities for stakeholders by avoiding the costly production and distribution of plastic packaging. 

How the customers of our ventures experienced reuse during COVID-19 

At the beginning of 2021, Greenpeace Indonesia surveyed our ventures’ customers to understand the perception and satisfaction of users of zero waste products after the first year of Pandemic.  

Crucial to the transition away from disposables is the guarantee that reusables are safe, accessible, and easy to use. Greenpeace’s survey has underlined how consumers, despite the pandemic, are not only welcoming of reusable options, but consider them a better option than products with single-use packaging. The preception is that zero waste products are not just safe and hygienic, but allow consumers to use the product without feeling guilty for adding to the burden of environmental waste.

These exciting results are key for both our work and the reuse movement. As even despite minor setbacks for reuse at the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen that consumers are still trying to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.

To ride the wave of this renewed excitement for reuse options, reuse businesses should clearly centertheir sanitization practices so as to increase their customers’ feeling of safety.

COVID-19 as a way to build back better towards a circular model

COVID-19 has shown us how quickly change can happen, and how important resilience and adaptability are. The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in the current system, showing the need to rebuild our economy in a way that’s both more equal and less destructive to the planet.

And no, COVID-19 has not scared consumers away from Reuse. If anything, it has heightened customer awareness around environmental issues, making this the moment to change and “build back better” towards a new normal, shifting our current linear economy into a circular one. At the Zero Waste Living Lab we are doing this by building reuse businesses that drive systemic change towards a true circular economy for plastics. 

Are you ready to join the Reuse Revolution and build back better?

Join us in making zero waste the new normal.
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