Reusable To-Go Packaging: Scaling Challenges and the Path to Sustainable Consumption

How long is the actual service life of a disposable to-go coffee cup? Five minutes, 10, longer perhaps? The exact length is insubstantial. It figures that the time required for production, transport, and disposal of a disposable cup is significantly longer than its functional use. Further, many disposable cups are not disposed of correctly, ending up as garbage in our environment. A WWF study demonstrated that in 2022 more than 13.5 billion disposable containers for food, drinks, and confectionery were purchased in the German gastronomy, hotel, and catering sectors. Many in society agree that this is outdated, that on many accounts we need a systemic change in packaging.

By Prof. Sandra Transchel and Dr. Sandra Luttermann

This article first appeared in "Forum Nachhaltig Wirtschaften" 02/2024. 


More Reusability

Alongside innovations of novel materials and better recycling capacity, new concepts for reusable packaging in the B2C segment have been gaining currency for some years. Since well before the Mehrwegangebotspflicht (mandatory offering of reusable packaging) on to-go food and drink took effect at the beginning of 2023, we have seen a rapid rise in suppliers of reusable to-go packaging (such as pooling providers Recup/Rebowl, Relevo, and Vytal). In the consumer goods sector as well, there are new ideas for new models of reusability, such as the startup dotch and its returnable bottle for edible oils, and the Hamburg company SEA ME, which specializes in reusable packaging for drugstores.

The Scaling Problem

Despite ambitious industry initiatives and more and more new startups with innovative reusability concepts, scalability and therefore the large-scale implementation of reusable packaging systems for to-go businesses are still proving difficult. In addition to a lack of acceptance among end customers, infrastructure is both lacking and unstandardized, which, critically, slows scaling down.

End customers often bemoan the complexity of reusable systems due to the various reusable packaging suppliers’ varying payment methods (deposit or payment via app) and return stations (often only at their respective distribution points). Alongside costs and hygiene factors, from the customer’s perspective it is paramount to be able to return reusable containers quickly and conveniently after usage. To achieve this scaling effect, a dense network of return stations is needed.

Such a return network would need an ample cleaning and logistics infrastructure, which does not exist. For the most part, restaurateurs and retailers clean the returned reusable containers for to-go food and drinks. Other reusable systems often invest in isolated solutions for the cleaning and logistics of their reusable packaging. This strategy, however, is not sufficiently scalable. Though for the extensive scaling of reusable systems, retail and gastronomy are key in putting reusable packaging into circulation. High investment costs for the development of a robust and efficient infrastructure are not linked to calculable risks; thus they are a major hurdle in large-scale adaptation to reusability. To expedite cleaning reusable packaging in large quantities, various suppliers’ cross-system solutions will be needed – attainable only via the close cooperation of businesses along the reusable supply chain.

Recent years of observation reveal that scaling reusable systems is not attainable solely through economic incentives. Government and regulators have to encourage the growth and scaling of reusable systems with public incentives or more stringent environmental regulations. For example, they can encourage the use of more reusable packaging by introducing prevention and reuse targets or take-back obligations. They can continue to support the market financially in order to make reverse logistics processes more viable.

Learning from Existing Systems

For many years, reusable systems have been an integral part of various sectors of our economy. Many companies manage logistics systems for reusable transport packaging (palettes, containers, boxes). In the B2C segment, we are familiar with reusable systems for beverage bottles (mineral water, beer, etc.) and the MMP (Mach Mehrweg Pool) reusable pool of bottles and glasses.

What can new reusable systems learn from established players? Efficiently managed reusable systems require standards and collaboration. In order to construct a comprehensive network of return and cleaning stations and manage costs efficiently, effective and robust logistics and cleaning processes are needed that can be guaranteed at certain standards (shape, material, label, deposit invoice, cleanliness, etc.). Uniform standards on packaging and processes lead to cost savings on purchase, storage, and logistics. As mass production of standardized packaging is usually cheaper than the production of a multiplicity of individual designs, procurement costs can be cut. It further facilitates the compatibility of cleaning and logistics processes across various supply chains and sectors. This structure simplifies exchange between various companies. Overall, this leads to lower inventory and less transport of reusable packaging, in turn lowering costs and positively affecting the scaling of reusable systems.

Standardized products and processes can contribute to a reduction in packaging waste and a decrease in pollution. A higher efficiency of logistics systems leads to greater circulation speed for reusable containers. Although each individual unit of reusable packaging consumes more materials and energy in production than disposable packaging, reusable systems can lead to a significant reduction in overall material use if the packaging is reused enough.


The development of reusable packaging systems is a vital step towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns. However, for reusability to become competitive sufficient scaling must be spurred on to build a sustainable reusable infrastructure. The close collaboration of various actors along the supply chain is needed to develop uniform standards. Despite these challenges, the environmental and economic benefits are a powerful incentive for the development and integration of reusable packaging into our business cycles. They contribute both to waste reduction and the long-term improvement of the quality of life on our planet.