Digital Infrastructure for Reusable Packaging



Digital technologies create novel ways to improve traceability and transparency throughout a product’s lifecycle, yet there has been little development in data integration and utilising this to operationalise closed-loop supply chains. No single organisation collects or controls all the relevant data, and thus an Open Data Standard is a crucial first step towards creating reusable packaging systems and supporting access to high-quality, relevant data to support decision making.

The Sustainability research theme worked with Reath, a start-up with a mission to build the digital infrastructure required for businesses to shift to the circular economy, who were supported by HappyPorch and the Open Data Institute and funded by Innovate UK in their creation of the world’s first Open Data Standard for reusable packaging.

Outcomes and Impact:

This project on digital infrastructure for reusable packaging identified four main challenges to adoption of reusable packaging for businesses, which centred around affordability, health and safety compliance, and reputational concerns:

Four big business concerns identified:

  • Questions of affordability due to additional expenses from changing their systems
  • Concerns about increased risks and complications for health and safety
  • The potential to hurt brand reputation if their scheme didn’t turn out to be better for the environment
  • Current regulations that make single-use containers more competitive. Because packaging taxes are based on weight, business investing in reusable packaging are actually penalised because improving durability often results in heavier containers

Digital trackers, unique barcodes, can address these hurdles. Being able to track an individual container enables businesses to calculate packaging lifespans and return rates from customers. Both are crucial to determining affordability. The unique barcode on a container is needed for recalling batches and evidencing cleaning between refills and return to the shop floor. These ‘digital passports’ also enable businesses to tell packaging stories in an appealing way, as they are able to verify and quantify their reuse activities for marketing purposes. A reusable container may require many uses for its environmental footprint to compare favourably with single-use alternatives, and so accurate accounting for refills is core to useful life cycle assessments. Currently organisations pay environmental taxes when packaging is released onto the market, but with digital trackers, it would be possible, to exempt organisations from paying every time their packaging is re-filled. In this way, track and trace allows governments to create taxation that incentivises reuse.