Only an estimated 3% of takeaway cups and containers are considered reusable in Australia*. We have one of the lowest reusable/refillable container use rates in the world. A staggering indictment on our progress towards sustainability. Yet when we talk to most people they either have a reusable water bottle or their own BYO coffee cup. And those who don’t are usually aware that they should have. So, what's stopping us switching to reusables and making this common practice?
The answer is the easy access to single-use cups and containers at food and drink takeaways or the supermarket.
One lesson from recent bans on lightweight plastics bags is that if we remove the supply of such bags and provide a reusable alternative, most people will change their behaviour. Could this be an option for takeaway food and drink?
Why not introduce a phase-out plan for all single use takeaway packaging? Given enough time and notice, we certainly have the ability to bring in new systems and services and change our behaviour to make reusables commonplace. It’s a logical end game to solve our plastic litter problems.
Such a suggestion may take policy makers some time to grasp, but it makes sense. In the meantime, what we need to do is to build on the community’s desire to reuse their cups, containers, and other utensils by giving more opportunities to do just that. The most obvious first steps are with ourselves.
We know that people are much more likely to adopt a behaviour if we think others are doing it too. Modelling positive behaviour to others by using our reusable water bottles and BYO cups encourages others to do the same. If we can normalise the use of reusables, more people will adopt them.
Some cafes are still refusing to accept BYO cups, despite the fact that no state or territory government bans this activity on health grounds. Making a polite point at these cafes can change their minds. There is nothing like a customer or committed citizen to show the way. According to the World Health Organisation, there is no evidence that COVID is even transmitted through packaging.
Supermarkets could be doing a lot more for their customers by providing reusable cup/container services. This is becoming increasingly commonplace in Europe, where reusable containers for delicatessen produce, for example, are available. Under these services, customers return their containers and are provided with a clean replacement, which they return on their next trip. No more single use plastics for these goods. On-line supermarket delivery services could also start using returnable boxes, not plastic bags.
There are no food safety restrictions preventing this, so if your local supermarket does not allow reusable containers, why not ask them to introduce their own service?
And what about drink containers? We now have a container scheme in most states and territories (with Victoria and Tasmania set for 2023). It makes sense to look at introducing reusable bottle collections into these schemes. In Germany, for example, over 50% of glass bottles are reusable/refillable and most returned through their container deposit scheme.
The packaging industry have a goal of having 10% of packaging reusable. This is more of a wish, without any clear or practical strategies on how it will be achieved. Setting a date for phasing out single-use takeaway, promoting reusable container services in retail and having container deposit schemes able to collect refillable containers are the next necessary actions.
Reusable/Refillable use by country
*APCO Collective Impact Report 2021