Unpacking the Circular Economy: Unlocking reuse at scale

Unlocking reusable packaging at scale will speed up transition to a circular economy and help combat the climate crisis. 

Despite an emerging global consensus on the need for bold action to address the problem of packaging waste, the challenges of transitioning to a circular economy remain stark.  

Cross-party think tank Policy Connect’s latest report, ‘Unpacking the Circular Economy – Unlocking Reuse at Scale’, chaired by Lord Teverson, sets out how transitioning to reusable packaging systems can minimise waste and maximise resources towards a circular economy.  

Packaging is critical to the safe and hygienic distribution of products, yet it consumes a significant amount of materials, and roughly half of the 5 million tonnes of plastic used annually in the UK is dedicated to packaging. With England’s recycling rates declining to 23.1 million tonnes of household waste in 2021, these unsustainable trends constitute a severe threat to the environment. 

Reusable packaging is a promising solution to the challenges of excessive resource consumption and waste, yet efforts to improve the uptake of reuse have faltered. Without clear and ambitious reuse targets and obligations, the UK is failing to leverage the economic, environmental, and social benefits that reusable packaging can provide.  

The report, following an inquiry carried out by the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group and the Sustainable Resource Forum, presents a strategic and focussed policy approach to deliver a more circular and sustainable economy. It sets out practical measures to incentivise the use of reusable packaging in the UK, recommending that: 

  • The Government provide an effective long-term delivery plan for collection and packaging reforms that accounts for the role of reusable packaging in reducing waste. 

  • The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework and Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) be adapted to incentivise reuse. 

  • Reuse standards, targets, and policy in the UK should align with those established in Europe. 

  • Long-term, pro-reuse public communications facilitate and support the transition to reusable packaging systems.  

Unpacking the Circular Economy’ provides a solid foundation for parliamentarians, stakeholders, and the wider public to deliver a successful transition to reusable packaging systems and achieve a more circular and environmentally conscious society.   

Lord Teverson, Inquiry Chair 

"As the Chair of the research inquiry informing this new report from Policy Connect, it is my hope that our recommendations support reusable packaging to become a cornerstone of our commitment to a greener, more resilient future, for generations to come. 

I believe that embracing reusable packaging is not just an environmental imperative but an economic opportunity for the UK. The recommendations in this report, advocating for advancements in the Extended Producer Responsibility framework, Deposit Return Schemes, and ambitious reuse targets, provide a pathway for a circular economy that fosters innovation, reduces waste, and ensures long-term prosperity. Regardless of our party affiliations, it is time to unite in decisive action for the well-being of our planet and future generations." 

Alex Sobel MP, All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group Officer 

"As stewards of our planet, it is imperative that we embrace innovative solutions to tackle the environmental crisis. I am compelled by the urgency to reshape our approach to sustainability, so I’m pleased to be able to support the launch of a new report from Policy Connect, which underscores the critical need for the adoption of reusable packaging at scale to tackle the climate crisis and solve our packaging waste problem. 

The recommendations put forth in this report aim to reshape policies and practices to foster an environment where the widespread adoption of reusable packaging is not just an option but a necessity. We must embrace this opportunity to create a more sustainable, resilient future for our communities and our planet.” 

Katy Haigh, Report author  

"I’m delighted to present the recommendations of our report on reusable packaging, on behalf of Policy Connect. 

The pressing environmental issues we face highlight the unsustainable nature of our current packaging methods. The way we currently do things is no longer enough. We need a significant change that moves us away from single-use and embraces a more circular economy through reusable systems on a large scale.  

A supportive policy and regulatory foundation is critical to achieving this. Through the delivery of collection and packaging reforms, like Extended Producer Responsibility and Deposit Return Schemes, the Government has the opportunity to incorporate support and incentives for reusable packaging, so that we can realise the environmental and economic opportunities that this presents.   

The recent release of Simpler Recycling is a welcome announcement highlighting progress on reforms, and providing assurance that the Government is making steps to deliver on policy commitments for the resource and waste sector, to support their resource efficiency and net zero journeys. Now we need to lay the foundations to ensure that the potential of reusable packaging is realised as part of this.” 

Notes to Editors 

For further information, please contact Victoria.Zeybrandt [at] policyconnect.org.uk (Victoria[dot]Zeybrandt[at]policyconnect[dot]org[dot]uk) 

This inquiry has been sponsored by Brunel University London and University of Sheffield.

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. All-Party Parliamentary Groups are informal groups of Members of both Houses with a common interest in particular issues. The views expressed in this report are those of the group.

About Policy Connect  

Policy Connect is a cross-party think tank. We specialise in supporting parliamentary groups, forums and commissions, delivering impactful policy research and event programmes and bringing together parliamentarians and government in collaboration with academia, business and civil society to help shape public policy in Westminster and Whitehall, so as to improve people’s lives.  

Our work focusses on five key policy areas which are: Education & Skills; Industry, Technology & Innovation; Sustainability; Health; and Assistive & Accessible Technology.  

We are a social enterprise and are funded by a combination of regular annual membership subscriptions and time-limited sponsorships. We are proud to be a Disability Confident and London Living Wage employer, and a member of Social Enterprise UK.  

About the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group 

The All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group is the leading forum informing the debate between parliamentarians, business leaders and the sustainable resource community. Policy Connect provides the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group, supporting the group’s activities. We are committed to ensuring our actions and funding are entirely transparent.  

About the Sustainable Resource Forum

The Sustainable Resource Forum provides a neutral forum for communication and debate between parliamentarians, government officials, and leading experts and stakeholders in the waste sector on the crucial policy issues affecting sustainable resource management.