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  • Writer's pictureJulie de Vaan

New research on reusable packaging provides direction for sustainable transition in food industry

Updated: Jun 6

Reusable and refillable packaging can offer a more sustainable alternative to disposable packaging. While most consumers and producers are positive about reuse, the transition is still in its early stages.

That's why Changing Ways, in collaboration with partners including Nederland Schoon, has initiated research on consumer behavior and reuse. This research provides guidance for concrete steps in the adoption of reusable packaging in the Dutch food industry. What is needed to actually encourage reuse? And how can insights into consumer behavior contribute to achieving this?

In this article, Ingrid Goethart, Director a.i. of Nederland Schoon, and Julie de Vaan, Behavioral Expert and Researcher at Changing Ways, explain why they started this research and what they do with the results so far.

You began research on reusable and refillable packaging in early 2023. Why?

Julie: "In recent years, we have focused a lot on waste separation and recycling. Refillable packaging is often even more sustainable and, therefore, an important development. There are also increasing possibilities. Consumers are generally positive about it, but a real change in behavior does not often occur yet.

Producers and retailers wonder what they can do to encourage consumers to reuse without compromising on their satisfaction or purchase intentions. A thorough investigation into consumer behavior helps support developments in this area."

Ingrid: "Since the beginning of this year, Nederland Schoon has been tasked with implementing a plan with the following focus:

  • Identifying available reusable alternatives for products.

  • Raising consumer awareness of these alternatives.

  • Determining the most effective measures for different target groups and areas where the product may cause environmental damage.

By implementing this plan, we can contribute to a future where packaging becomes more valuable by being reused as a resource, while also preventing harm to the environment.

Supporting a project like this aligns perfectly with our mission to promote the use of reusable alternatives."

What has the research yielded so far?

Julie: "We now have a very good understanding of how consumers make choices regarding packaging, including the barriers to reuse. This depends on factors such as the target group, the environment, and the specific type of reuse. However, most consumers are generally positive about reuse. Whether people actually want to, do, and continue to reuse packaging is not guaranteed.

When people have to make a choice, they weigh different factors in their minds. Often, reuse doesn't happen because people don't find it suitable yet. They may think, for example, 'No, that's not for me' or 'It's not convenient at the moment.' Ultimately, they often rely on habits or convenience, choosing what seems most practical or easy at that moment.

Moreover, reusing packaging often requires extra effort from consumers. It involves one or more additional steps, such as refilling the packaging, storing an empty package, and returning or carrying it. There are significant barriers to overcome. Ultimately, we need to activate consumers and make the process as comfortable as possible, both mentally and physically. We need to give people the opportunity to adapt and internalize the behavior. This presents an important role and many opportunities for manufacturers and retailers."

Ingrid: "Many consumers have a positive attitude toward reuse, driven mainly by negative feelings about the amount of disposable packaging we currently use. However, this doesn't automatically mean that these people will switch to using reusable packaging. We need to make reuse as easy as possible for both unmotivated and motivated consumers. This applies to the aspects of carrying, refilling, and storing the packaging. It's essential."

What does that mean for practical implementation? What's the next step?

Ingrid: "For Nederland Schoon, this means we will utilize the insights from the research in our communication efforts to effectively motivate consumers to choose reusable and refillable packaging. Additionally, we will share the knowledge from the research with producers and importers so they can apply this knowledge to their products or sales locations. Finally, we are eager to share the developments and good examples that arise from this research with consumers."

Julie: "It's important to carefully consider various characteristics of the situation. For example, who is the target audience? What is their stance on sustainability and reuse? What type and material of packaging are involved? What is the product category? What is the location, setting, or distribution channel? All these factors influence how consumers make their choices, and therefore, how we can encourage reuse.

In terms of behavioral change, it remains a customized approach. Once you understand consumer behavior in your specific situation, you can quickly and easily identify the best methods or techniques to promote reuse."

Producers and other stakeholders in the food industry can now use the results and recommendations from this research to actively promote reuse in practice. If you're interested, contact Changing Ways or Nederland Schoon. They are eager to share more about the research findings and how they can benefit you or your organization.

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