Swedish lessons: Reuse and Return

What Scandinavia can teach us about supply-chain circularity

It seems perfectly fitting that blue and yellow together make green, since the nation most famous for flying the flag for environmental responsibility is in fact Sweden — currently ranked the most sustainable country in the world and the consistent holder of the number one spot for years.

Its recycling rate is often quoted as an astonishing 99%, however, if you exclude waste-to-energy from the totals, then that headline recycling rate is roughly halved and relatively static, placing it closer in line with country averages for the EU. As the country transitions towards cleaner, greener energy, however, its appetite for finding other ways of dealing with its waste is growing, explains Caroline Silvarö, Sustainability Coordinator at reusable systems pioneer Svenska Retursystem:

“With rising investment in wind and solar, people are talking increasingly about the need to make the sorting of material much more advanced, so that plastic waste feeds back round into new plastic products, rather than simply being burned for heat. Ultimately, we want to keep material flowing in a loop, as a circular resource — sustainable in a bigger sense.”

Especially given the wider sustainability drivers now in evidence — such as consumer behaviour, activism, climate and circularity agendas — there are important lessons to be learned by any supplier aligning with the prevailing social and business culture context in a country such as Sweden, says Ben Sy Savane, Product Manager Engineered Solutions, Avery Dennison:

“The systemic focus on sustainability in Sweden fits with our vision at Avery Dennison to make every new product more sustainable than its predecessors. In order to achieve this ambition, it is essential to collaborate not just with individual customers, but whole sectors, industries and ecosystem partners such as Svenska Retursystem."

Svenska Retursystem: Return and Reuse

The idea behind Svenska Retursystem (SRS) is elegant in its simplicity: the distribution of goods and produce such as food and beverage should take place in reusable units rather than disposable packaging.

So, streamlining logistics and distribution, SRS provides reusable crates and pallets that have been developed to meet the grocery industry’s strict standards for quality, durability and care for the environment.

The pooling system is based on circular economy principles, with crates made of hardwearing, recyclable plastic that can be used again and again. 

First off, SRS supplies the reusable crates and pallets to the producer, where they are filled for delivery to the wholesaler. The wholesaler then delivers them to the retailer — where the crates and pallets are emptied and returned. Finally, SRS brings them all back for quality control and washing, following which they are ready to be used again.

Crates that have reached the end of their service are sent back to the manufacturer where they are ground down and the recovered material is then used in the production of new crates. Through this process the materials live on and additional natural resource extraction is avoided.

This is no niche activity: half of Sweden’s fresh produce deliveries to the grocery retail trade use SRS’s reusable crates, with customers including major retailers and brands from Coop to Coca Cola.

Therefore, whilst the principle might seem simple enough, the multiple benefits that accrue to the various stakeholders throughout the supply chain are both significant and sophisticated in sustainability terms.

In avoiding the need for disposable packaging, the system cuts CO2 emissions, reduces food waste, optimises transport, minimises use of chemicals and helps maintain a cleaner working environment.

Furthermore, when it comes to carbon, SRS does not just claim to shrink footprints, it can prove it, via third-party validation. An independent life cycle analysis (LCA) of the service has revealed reusable crates reduced CO2e emissions by 78%, compared with equivalent disposable packaging.

The opposite of disposable, being durable is what delivers the benefits over time, explains Caroline Silvarö:

“Each reusable crate has an expected lifespan of about 15 years and gets used on average 150 times. The LCA has helped show how critical this durability factor is in helping reduce environmental impact — and in May this year, SRS reached a major sustainability milestone, with its system successfully having replaced two billion pieces of disposable packaging.”

The last three years have seen many more customers expressing interest in reusability and the SRS carbon footprint data, adds Pontus Björkdahl, Head of Sustainability at SRS:

Reuse and return - Avery Dennison
“Carbon is the topic most talked about and the trend is up. Our customer survey also clearly highlights reputation and sustainability as increasingly key corporate values which suppliers are expected to share.”

Accordingly, as well as exploring opportunities for service innovation — investing in smart-chip technology to boost tracking and traceability, mapping via GPS and monitoring for metrics such as temperature — SRS is also working hard to hit its own tough climate targets around emissions.

The organisation is committed to going fossil-free for transport in Sweden by 2025 and globally by 2030. It has also set itself a fossil-free materials target, with all new production to be made from renewable material, such as plastic waste, by the end of the decade.

Co-creation: Collaboration in action

The origins of Svenska Retursystem are perhaps typically Swedish in a cultural sense, but also quite unique in a commercial context.

The industry came together 24 years ago to do something collectively in the shape of SRS, instead of having each company operate separate, proprietary systems. So, its customers are in effect also its owners.

The project got off to a somewhat slower start than anticipated, which actually illustrates the difference in approach, suggests Pontus Björkdahl:

“The industry came together, really wanting change. Despite this strong collective intention, the system grew more gradually than expected.

“However, this type of pooling service is more of a long-term business model by design, with products made to last 15 years and customers installing automation processes that offer return on investment over time.”

Economies of scale also play-in increasingly — the bigger the system gets, the more efficient it becomes, cutting both the economic and environmental costs of operation — which represents another win-win for all concerned.

Feeding into this shared approach to common goals, the role for a supplier such as Avery Dennison is therefore to openly and actively complement and support the system along its sustainability path, says Ben Sy Savane:

“In order that a return service or system for pallets and crates can work optimally and consistently, it is essential that the labels — including the adhesives — are compatible with the reuse and recycling process. So, by enabling labels and adhesives to be removed completely from pallets and crates, Avery Dennison helps enable and support Svenska Retursystem in delivering an efficient and sustainable climate-smart system for pooling and reuse that adds great value to the supply chain.”

The new generation of Avery Dennison paper wash-off labels with adhesives WX6030 and WW2031 are designed for easy removal with water from different packaging surfaces at a minimum temperature of 21°C and optimal at 60°C, which enables packaging recycling and reuse.

So, for any organisation with a strong learning culture around sustainability, the opportunity to find inspiration and achieve improvement through joint working justifies the business risk involved, concludes Ben Sy Savane:

“In order to offer better labelling solutions for a better future, it is essential to work in harmony with the existing recycling streams in different industries and markets. These partnerships can unleash innovative business models. 

“In practice, this means being open-minded about new ways of working together. At Avery Dennison, we are not afraid to take intelligent risks to collaborate and help co-create truly sustainable change and value for all.”

Reuse and return - Avery Dennison