Returnable Packaging Law a Failure? Pragmatic Solutions Are Needed
6/8/2024 New Paths Sustainability Article

Returnable Packaging Law a Failure? Pragmatic Solutions Are Needed

The results of the returnable packaging law are sobering: It has clearly failed to achieve its goal of reducing the use of single-use packaging in the catering industry. Nevertheless, the ‘mehrweg.einfach.machen’ project alliance believes that reusable packaging could become the standard for out-of-home consumption - with the help of behavioural and psychological incentives.

In a take-away shop, a customer receives his food in reusable packaging. According to ProjectTogether, consumers are generally in favour of reusable packaging.

Since January 2023, all providers of food and beverages for out-of-home consumption have been obliged to offer an alternative to disposable containers. The aim of the law to offer reusable containers was to significantly increase the use of reusable containers. However, after more than a year, it is clear that this objective has been missed. The initial positive effects have evaporated. According to a study conducted by the Society for Packaging Market Research, the reusable rate has stagnated at just 1.6 percent. In the same period, the consumption of disposable containers actually increased from 13.6 to 14.6 billion.

The implementation alliance ‘mehrweg.einfach.machen’, initiated by WWF Germany, ProjectTogether and the German Reusable Packaging Association, believes that reusable packaging can still become the standard for out-of-home consumption. In order to have the greatest possible impact, the initiative is pursuing a pragmatic approach based on behavioural psychology, which aims to get restaurateurs and customers on board.

Two people walk past a bakery with reusable cups. ProjectTogether wants to help make reusable packaging a standard in gastronomy.

“The reusable packaging obligation was actually intended to promote the use of reusable packaging, but it has several weaknesses,” says Lukas Schuck from ProjectTogether, describing the initial situation, adding: “The regulations are too lax and contain many exceptions for different companies and materials, which creates loopholes.” According to ProjectTogether, consumers are generally in favour of reusable packaging: 90 percent would like to use it, but only 18 percent actively ask for it. The alliance wants to exploit this potential and initially investigated what works in practice.

In autumn 2023, ProjectTogether therefore launched an extensive experiment: eight system caterers – including Burger King, Haferkater, Ikea and Backwerk – in 800 branches across Germany tested various approaches. Over 2.2 million data points were collected and scientifically analysed. According to Schuck, the experiment has shown that the initiative of catering businesses is crucial. 

Positive Incentives at the Centre

“Creative and ambitious measures to promote reusable packaging can significantly increase the reusable quota and are well received by customers,” says Schuck. Customers do not feel patronised, but have predominantly commented positively in interviews and on social media about the measures, which were concretised in the experiment as so-called nudges.

During the test phase, nudging proved to be a successful tool within a comprehensive reusable strategy. This is a concept from behavioural research that aims to motivate people to behave in certain ways by providing subtle incentives. A well-known example is placing healthier options at eye level on shelves to encourage choice. The project participants have now transferred this principle to the promotion of reusable packaging.

At the counter, the employee gives the customer a hot drink in a returnable cup. Subtle incentives support the choice in favour of reusable packaging containers.

Various nudges were used to increase the reusable packaging rate, aimed at either customers or employees. Customer nudges include incentives such as simplified return options without queuing. However, lower prices on food in reusable packaging also fall into this category. These measures are intended to directly motivate customers to use reusable packaging. Employee-orientated nudges use approaches such as gamification to increase employee engagement. One example is the employee challenge, in which Burger King branches competed to see who could achieve the highest reusable packaging rate. This led to a demonstrable increase in the reusable quota of up to 155 percent in the participating branches.

In addition to these specific measures, there are also communication standards that are effective both in front of and behind the counter. For example, staff can be trained to actively offer customers to serve their drinks in reusable cups. Such training helps staff to understand the advantages of reusable cups and to communicate these convincingly to customers.

ProjectTogether has now summarised the findings from the experiments in a playbook. The guide contains practical examples, experience reports and step-by-step instructions to motivate and support other restaurateurs. Lukas Schuck emphasises: “A joint effort is needed for the reusable offer obligation to finally take effect. Catering businesses play a key role in this. With our nudging playbook, we want to inspire and motivate businesses throughout Germany to join the reusable turnaround.”