The 3 roles municipalities must play to create an ecosystem for reuse solutions

As we watch flashy advertorials for the latest alternative materials, or sit back impressed by the sleek design of a new alternative delivery solution, It’s tempting to feel that the start-ups have it all figured out. But behind the sleek marketing material is the stark reality that changing decades of consumer behavior is not easy. Our plastic problem isn’t going away. We need a reuse revolution. That much is clear. But also clear is that to create change at scale, governments have a role to play.

Last month we held our webinar celebrating the Zero Waste Living Lab’s 3rd anniversary. During the event, we looked at what is needed to bring reuse solutions to scale with the help of sustainability professionals Christoffer Brick (Project Lead at GIZ), and Tiza Mafira (Associate Director of Plastic Bag Diet). Over the last decade, fast-paced, impact-driven and visionary entrepreneurs started to build the first reuse solutions. At the same time, governments have grown to understand the need for and the potential of ADS to solve the waste crisis by preventing the use of single-use plastics at the source. And yes, now governments are even starting to make ambitious pledges on prevention. However, these set ambitions are not enough. To make reuse solutions succeed, governments have a crucial role to play.

1. Governments must lead by example

Governments play a role as both a user and an enabler. If reuse is to thrive, consumer behavior will need to change. By adopting innovative solutions, governments can showcase to everyone, from consumers to businesses, that reuse solutions are concrete and working concepts, and not just theories. Going further, they should enable solutions to grow by introducing regulations and making clear public statements.

For example, Tiza explained how the municipality of Jakarta has led by example to promote plastic alternatives. The governor recommended an internal regulation to forbid the use of plastic by the city government agencies. They were no longer able to use plastics during governmental meetings, so they were encouraged to seek alternatives such as lunch in banana leaves. This was a strong way to earn people’s trust, so strong that six months later, a ban on single-use plastic bag regulation was adopted. Tiza believes that this strategy can be used widely to promote reuse solutions.

2. Discouraging single-use and virgin plastic production

Governments play a key role in discouraging single-use and virgin plastic production. A great recent example comes from the municipality of Freiburg, Germany. They took the initiative to install a plastic tax to discourage the consumption of single-use plastics. Since implementation, each purchase of single-use packaging for immediate consumption is now fined 1.50€. This regulation received backlash from McDonald’s, a big user of single-use plastics, which is suing the city of Freiburg. The amount of awareness created by this law shows that governments can move the needle. Cities can learn from Freiburg and push for change in both consumer behavior and companies’ ways of working.

Of course, reuse solutions have to exist operationally before such policies can be effective. Yet when they do exist, such regulation boosts reuse solutions by driving up demand. The anticipated increase in demand and adoption rates of reuse solutions also serve to attract investment, a significant shift given that the risk profiles of reuse solutions are typically seen as rather high. Legislation and the ensuing demand growth and investor attention can become a flywheel, with the growth of reuse attracting new investors and new investment, which in turn facilitates yet more growth and the spread of the reuse movement.

3. Regulation to create trust and standards

Since the covid-19 pandemic started, the amount of single-use plastic waste has skyrocketed. Christoffer explained how on the demand side, there’s been a big fear of reuse since the pandemic began. Because of the covid prevention campaigns, consumers now perceive a hygiene risk in reusable packaging and feel more comfortable using single-use. This misplaced but understandable fear is affecting the adoption of reuse and refill solutions. Our own single-use cup alternatives venture, Cupkita, was put on hold during the pandemic because of declining demand. This is where municipalities need to step in.

By creating well-regulated systems, the set-up and implementation of reuse solutions can slowly become the standard. Governments need to treat reuse and packaging solutions the same as regular plastic. This means applying the same strict measures such as rigorous hygiene, washing and filling units, and material quality and testing standards to name a few. The goal is for the reuse movement to become mature and integrated into the mainstream. This way, we can create trust. 

Only together can we build a mature reuse ecosystem

Building a mature reuse ecosystem cannot be done alone. We, the Zero Waste Living Lab, strongly encourage social entrepreneurs to reach out to their government and share their experiences and insights with them on reuse solutions. Building a scalable reuse ecosystem requires collaboration between all parties. If governments don’t directly come to us, we should take the initiative and go to them.

By guiding consumers to switch from single-use to reuse, applying strict reuse standards, and discouraging people from consuming single-use plastics, governments can help reuse start-ups build a robust reuse ecosystem and kickstart the reuse revolution.  

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