Rethinking Single-Use Sachets: Why companies need to think ahead

Companies need to rethink their practices when it comes to disposable plastic. Sachets (small single use-dosed packaging) cause major harm to the planet and fuel plastic pollution. Here is the question: Why spend millions of USD in recycling and cleanup, when ditching single-use plastics and investing in reuse or refill solutions presents major business opportunities? Changing delivery models enables companies to position themselves as forward thinking businesses, whilst cutting costs and fighting plastic pollution.

The role of companies to identify alternatives

Each day a total of 5.5 million sachets are used for detergent alone in Indonesia. These sachets are disposed of and destined to leak. The lifecycle of sachet packaging is short. They are mainly used as single-dose packaging, neither refillable nor sealable. Once empty, they’re simply trashed. But there occurs the next problem. Their complex multi-layer construction of polymers, aluminum and films is designed to keep products fresh in soggy tropical heat and consequently makes them almost impossible to recycle. Emerging countries. Lacking in waste management , leave these sachets to end up in landfills, rivers, streets, and in our ocean or elsewhere, polluting the planet. One of the countries drowning in the tremendous volume of waste being produced, is Indonesia.

Companies need to think ahead when it comes to plastic packaging as policymakers, governments and NGO alliances are already striving for change. Developments and solutions to combat the plastic pollution are happening around the world. So far, more than 120 countries have banned single-use plastics such as plastic straws or plastic bags. The list is growing, and numerous other countries are continuously joining the bans.
NGO alliances like Rethink Plastic are working together with European policymakers to design and deliver policy solutions for a future that is free from plastic pollution. Taxes on the use of plastic to reduce the overall level of plastic in the economy are part of the discussions.

Embracing business opportunities that lie ahead

Businesses can use these changes to their advantage by creating sustainable sachets and pitching themselves as an alternative to plastic. Unilever is already working on solutions for recycling plastic sachets. Nevertheless, recycling material or switching to paper or “bioplastic” does not prevent more plastic from entering the markets and only shifts the problem. What is really needed are solutions that prevent plastic packaging to enter the system in the first place. The only way to solve the plastic pollution crisis is to radically rethink and redesign packaging in a way that prioritizes refill and reuse.

Converting 20% of plastic packaging into reuse models is a USD 10 billion business opportunity that benefits customers and represents a crucial element in the quest to eliminate plastic pollution.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), shows that swapping 20% of plastic packaging (by weight) for reusables could unlock significant market opportunities. Let’s calculate that based on one example: switching personal and homecare bottles and carrier bags would yield 6 million tons of material savings. Innovative product-delivery system models could save 80-90% on plastic packaging material, which translates into an economic opportunity of USD 9 Billion. ​

The start-ups rethinking plastic packaging

To stop the planet being polluted with plastic packaging, companies need to follow the examples of start-ups around the planet that are already working on reuse solutions for products typically sold in sachets.

Start-ups are innovating at light speed on increasingly localized and shortened value chains which allows them to deliver products more efficiently and cut costs by around 30%.

Mettler, 2019, How to tackle the plastic crisis, p. 72
First Pilots on the Zero Waste Warung, a blockchain-inspired refill-system with reusable sachets in a network of local warungs.

The Zero Waste Living Lab has a reuse venture in the pipeline that skips small-size packaging at the source. The Zero Waste Warung is a blockchain-inspired refill-system that facilitates local warungs (small local, informal stores) with refillable sachets. Customers and warung owners get rewarded for refilling their goods and reusing the sachets, which are squeezable and resealable. This system upgrades and extends the lifecycle of sachets whilst still allowing customers to purchase small amounts of high-quality products. This packaging is even more convenient than traditional sachet as it is sealable, customized and 100% of the content can be used. Providing customers with refillable squeezy tubes, refill stations or refill at home subscriptions are opportunities to change the way we think about packaging and show a way out of the plastic crisis.

Another example is Replenish who sells reusable, durable spray bottles that attach to pods of liquid concentrates of anything from cleaning solutions to personal care products. In a typical cleaning bottle just 5% is actually cleaner, the rest is filled with water, added at a factory which needs to be shipped, adding costs and taxing recourses.  Just one Replenish pod contains as much cleaning liquid as four conventional bottles.

The Chilean start-up Algramo is also tackling plastic packaging at the source. In cooperation with Unilever they have launched a mobile home-refill service, selling products like laundry detergents or soap on an electric tricycle. Customers hail the tricycle via the app to their homes and refill their containers on-site. The service is completely free of charge. Their smart packaging works with RFID tags which enabling cashless payments.

These three examples show that change is already happening. Investing in systems that prioritize reuse and refill solutions is a major opportunity that benefits consumers, the planet and the companies themselves. Reluctance to innovate can crush a business, therefore major companies have to find ways to add  sustainable value to their packaging. Start-ups like Algramo, Replenish and Zero Waste Warung are shining examples what is already possible and of how these solutions could work.

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