24 October 2023

“We need a comprehensive approach, not isolated solutions.”

In our latest Opinion of the Month, Pia Schnück, Head of Sustainability, Packaging & Circular Economy, explains how, in addition to new processes and improved consumer communication, there will have to be a sea change in policy-making mindsets if we want to be able to offer reusable containers as a more environmentally and customer-friendly alternative.
Reading time: 7 min.

Dear Reader,

By the end of 2025, we aim to double our range of products in reusable containers or without packaging, as compared to 2021. My team and I are working hard to achieve this specific goal for REWE and PENNY. In doing so, we are testing new solutions and enabling our colleagues in purchasing and sales to make their product ranges more environmentally friendly. But the circular economy is complex and requires scalable measures to implement noticeable changes across sectors. That’s why we support the federal government’s key points for a third law amending the Packaging Act (Act to reduce packaging waste) to promote reusable alternatives – provided the necessary conditions are met.

Effective recycling and the use of recycled materials are important measures for the circular economy, but we see tremendous potential for reusable containers and products without packaging, and this potential absolutely must be leveraged. For this reason, we have already implemented numerous measures. Both REWE and PENNY provide reusable alternatives for various beverage products in their stores throughout Germany. REWE is also the first food retailer to establish an open, scalable system for reusable to-go packaging that uses the existing return system available at supermarkets in the form of bottle return machines. The “Einfach Mehrweg” (“Simply Reusable”) reusable packaging system has received both the Blue Angel ecolabel and the 2023 ECR Sustainability Excellence Award. We also see the potential of reusable containers for cut flowers. This year, PENNY became the first food retailer in Germany to offer flowers in reusable pots.

In order to realise the enormous sustainability potential of reusable packaging as a whole, we need comprehensive systems and not isolated solutions.

Pia Schnück, Head of Sustainability, Packaging and Circular Economy
Pia Schnück, Head of Sustainability, Packaging and Circular Economy

The food retail industry, with millions of customers daily, demands high efficiency and customer benefits. Therefore, in order to increase the sustainability of reusable containers, we need a comprehensive approach, not isolated solutions. The consumer will not accept such solutions, either. We do believe, however, that standards and industry solutions are urgently needed, and I’d like to explain why using three examples.

There has been a sharp increase in recent years in the use of individual containers, such as embossed bottles or drink boxes with logos or names printed on them, for beverages like water and beer. This trend makes reusable containers inefficient and reduces their environmental benefit. This is because every single bottle from a North German brewery must be returned to that brewery, even if it’s sold at a REWE store in the far south of Germany.

Reusable pool bottles should therefore be accessible to everyone who wants to use them. Because what many people don’t know is that, at present, we cannot simply offer our own-brand water in standard reusable bottles. The conditions of use at established pool operators specify, in part, that only brands participating in the German Wells Cooperative and therefore no retailer own-brands can be filled there. In our view, politicians need to strongly advocate for the opening-up of these pools so that they can push through their own goals concerning reusable containers. Under current conditions, the full potential of reusable bottles cannot be realised, because strong and well-known own brands cannot be sold in the most common reusable pool bottles.

Additionally, plans are also being considered to require the return of all reusable bottles for reusable drink containers. This is a good from the consumer’s point of view, and may help promote the acceptance of reusable containers. At the same time, this sort of requirement cannot be put into practice as long as there are so many different containers in use requiring umpteen different types of bottle and crate systems. In our view, requiring the return of reusable packaging – irrespective of the product range – should generally be accompanied by the call for and promotion of open return systems with standardized containers that build on existing structures.

As I’ve already said, at REWE Group we have taken a holistic view of reusable containers for several years now that goes even beyond drinks as a product group. With the “Einfach Mehrweg” system, we and our to-go packaging partner Sykell have created, appropriately tested, modified, and rolled out an open system for ready-to-eat food. We also launched a pilot program with bulk food sections at 11 REWE supermarkets at the end of September. Here, too, we must surmount high hurdles in terms of hygiene and ecology, especially since opening large packages and placing the contents in bulk food containers does not add value. We are excited to see how customers will respond to the new set-up and the practical conclusions we can draw from this in terms of scale.

We want to work together to expand environmentally meaningful reusable systems that are ambitious but feasible for customers while also being easy to work with. From our perspective, the Act to reduce packaging waste should focus much more on concrete implementation and design to achieve customer-friendly, fast, and sustainable solutions – and follow best practices. After all, the deposit system for disposable drink containers implemented in Germany years ago created a structure with common standards and sufficient financing – and it was accepted by consumers. We need to build on these experiences, and also serve as a role model in Europe with a view to current discussions at EU level.

It is not easy to win over and motivate consumers to use reusable containers. Doing so requires a partnership between politicians, NGOs, and businesses, as well as effective communication. Reusable solutions will always be more expensive for customers than disposable packaging, which is simply thrown away after the product has been used. That’s why we need to make things as easy as possible for consumers. Reusable containers must be convenient. These are things that my team and I will continue to work on with a great deal of motivation and innovative ideas.

Yours Pia Schnück

Pia Schnück
Head of Sustainability, Packaging and Circular Economy

joined the REWE Group in 2020