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Mary Mazzoni headshot

New Fund Aims to Scale Packaging Reuse and Refill Systems Around the World

By Mary Mazzoni
people get drinks in reusable cups at a music festival in australia - reuse and refill systems

Attendees at the Subsonic Music Festival in Sydney, Australia, purchase drinks in reusable cups. Reuse and refill systems like these can cut plastic waste dramatically over the next 20 years, according to the U.N. (Image: Turn Systems/Unsplash)

This story is part of a solutions journalism series focused on reuse and refill systems, how they're used around the world, and what's holding them back from scaling further. Follow along with the series here

As the world chokes on plastic waste, the statistics are so dizzying that many of us have grown numb to them. At least 14 million tons of plastic are washed into the world's oceans every year. That's equivalent to more than 280 billion beverage bottles. These plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces when exposed to the sun, and the resulting microplastics have been found from the top of Mount Everest to the ocean floor — not to mention in human blood, and more recently within clogged arteries

If that's not bad enough, it's projected to get worse, with global plastic consumption set to double by 2040 as convenient but wasteful single-use systems expand to the growing global middle class, according to a 2023 analysis from the U.N. Environment Program.  

Ready for some good news? We already know how to solve the problem — we just need to put it into action — and a newly announced prototype fund can help. 

Reuse and refill systems could cut plastic waste by nearly half

The U.N. Environment Program ran scenarios for halving global plastic waste while reducing plastic litter in oceans and the environment by 80 percent. Most of the plastic reduction needed to reach that target could be achieved by reuse, refill and new delivery models, according to the research.

Before the explosion of single-use plastic in the 1970s, most people purchased their household staples and met their daily needs without packaging. We already know how to send bottles back with the milkman or restock our pantry from the bulk bins at our local corner store. But as it became easier to purchase everything in neat, individual packages, the reuse and refill systems we once depended on fell by the wayside.

As the chickens of our single-use plastic habit come home to roost, the global community is challenged to rebuild those forgotten systems and rethink them for the modern age.

Dozens if not hundreds of startups around the world are taking up the task, with refill systems for groceries, beverages, restaurant takeout, personal care products and more. But it takes significant upfront investment to build the infrastructure necessary to process containers for refill, not to mention the cultural momentum needed to woo people away from single-use, so these ventures often struggle to get out of the starting gate. 

The plastic action group Repurpose Global is looking to help more early-stage reuse and refill ventures reach the next level. The Reuse Outcomes Fund, announced last month, will support promising startups in the U.S., Canada and India, leveraging lessons the nonprofit learned from scaling waste management infrastructure across the Global South. 

The Reuse Outcomes Fund channels lessons from waste management to help reuse and refill scale up

"Billions of people don't have access to basic municipal waste management and collection services," said Peter Wang Hjemdahl, chief innovation officer and co-founder of Repurpose Global. "If there's no waste collection, there's no recycling, and there is no circular economy at the end of the day."

Repurpose Global uses a model called outcomes-based financing to fund projects that expand waste management systems and capture plastic waste before it can reach the environment. Rather than seeking a financial return, these investments aim to achieve a specific, verifiable environmental or social outcome — in this case, waste that is collected and processed for recycling rather than becoming litter.

The model helped Repurpose Global bring waste management services to more than 600,000 people over the past six years, while recovering over 50 million pounds of plastic waste across the U.S., India, Indonesia, Kenya, Ghana, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. 

Like waste management services in underserved areas, fledgling reuse and refill systems face challenges with high upfront cost, limited financing options, and a dearth of best practices that can guide replication of these systems from one place to another. These similarities came to light as Repurpose Global's team connected with more startups as a co-convener of the Innovation Alliance for a Global Plastics Treaty, which pushes for refill companies and other plastic economy innovators to have a more prominent voice in global plastics policy.

"A lot of the issues we saw in waste management in the Global South are applicable in the very early, nascent stages of trying to scale reuse and refill solutions," Hjemdahl said. "We see the same challenges, and we are confident about our track record. We felt that now is the right time to make a concrete commitment." 

A three-year investment that could come with big payoff 

The Reuse Outcomes Fund will operate over the next three years — first securing partnerships with promising reuse and refill startups, then helping them build capacity and launch new pilot projects, and finally scaling those projects and creating a framework to replicate them elsewhere. 

Set to be announced at the end of this year, the first cohort of startups will collectively receive $1 million in funding from Repurpose Global, as well as technical training and capacity-building from the Repurpose team. As part of the outcomes-based financing model, the nonprofit will also build systems that allow for the verification of plastic waste avoided by implementing reuse and refill, as well as a knowledge repository that documents best practices to aid the replication of successful systems. 

"Ultimately, we have to define what a 'reuse outcome' is and what a 'refill outcome' is," Hjemdahl said. "It sort of makes logical sense, right? We can avoid a tonnage of plastic waste that would've otherwise not been avoided without the presence of the financing. But the devil is in the details, so we have to work with the sector — not just by ourselves, but work with nonprofits and other leaders in order to actually define these things." 

The fund will focus on startups working in three priority areas: refill stations for water bottles and other beverages, reverse logistics models for food and grocery delivery, and returnable packaging systems for e-commerce and physical retailers. These systems are the closest to consumers' daily lives and as such have the potential to eliminate high volumes of plastic waste. 

"It's really important that basic amenities like food, water and groceries can reach people in a way that does not require packaging," said Svetlana Dcosta, senior manager of strategic partnerships for Repurpose Global, who developed the Reuse Outcomes Fund alongside Hjemdahl. "For groceries, food deliveries, even your personal care products, oftentimes consumers feel guilty that they come in so much plastic packaging. Enabling and financing these systems allow them to go to a store and refill or call in for a refill when they run out of their staples." 

While a $1 million fund may sound like a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the world's plastic waste problem, effectively expanding reuse and refill holds promise for outsized impact. For example, every 10 percent increase in refillable bottle use across coastal countries could yield a 22 percent reduction in plastic bottle pollution in the world's oceans, according to the nonprofit Oceana.

The fund's focus on documenting best practices for the purpose of replication could also help systems proven through the pilot phase to reach new markets faster and begin to eliminate waste. 

"Our thinking here is: Let's come in with an anchor commitment. Let's come in with our expertise, and let's hope to use this fund — which is meant to be a prototype fund — to garner more interest and more work around this," Hjemdahl said. "The initiative here is really a continuation of our mission from day one, which is to bring different folks across the entire ecosystem together to create change against plastic pollution." 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni