Formal reuse systems provided through the work of businesses and non-profit organizations have been a significant source of new solutions in the last decade. However, informal systems for reuse have operated across the globe for many years and continue to evolve and expand. Some grew out of cultural practices or traditional ways of doing business, while others are recent innovations. All of these informal reuse systems contribute to the reuse economy and provide examples of how reuse can work efficiently and effectively for all.
This page includes examples that we have come across in our research on reuse systems and we know it is just a fraction of the informal reuse systems in use today. We are eager to add new types and examples of informal reuse, so please send your suggestions to email@example.com and we will incorporate them.
Informal reuse systems have been listed below in the following categories: Food Delivery, Bulk Food Purchases, Reusable Bags, Food trucks/ Tea or Coffee Stands, On Premises Restaurant Reuse, BYO Reusable Cups and Takeout Containers, and Reuse at Events/ Venues. We also highlight how these informal reuse categories connect to the Living Landscape of Reuse Solutions.
Problem addressed: Takeout containers and utensils
Connection to database: Reusable foodware systems such as DeliverZero and barePack provide an example of how formal solutions providers are bringing reusable foodware to the takeout space with easy-to-use food delivery in returnable packaging. Click here to view the reusable cup and container programs in the Living Landscape database that offer delivery.
Food from local restaurants in South Korea is often delivered using scooters that bring food in a box resembling a picnic basket. Each item comes packaged in its own reusable bowl or pot, with metal utensils. When the user is done, they place the box with the empty foodware outside their door to be picked up, either by the original driver or another one in the vicinity. This is not a formalized system, but how many local restaurants operate.
Photo credit: Joe Zacks | Flickr
The Dabbawala food delivery system began in 1890 and has since grown to deliver nearly 200,000 dabbas, or stainless steel tiffin boxes, six days a week. The intricate delivery system, consisting of 5,000 dabbawalas who transport the containers, connects office workers to home-cooked meals for lunch. After lunch the system is reversed in order for the dabbas to be returned in preparation for the next day. Each dabba goes through six dabbawalas before it reaches its customer, though the system is so efficient that there is only one mistake in every six million deliveries.
Photo credit: Jo | Flickr
Bulk Food Purchases
Problem addressed: Sachets, packaging, bottles/jugs
Connection to database: The Living Landscape database features over 500 Package-free shops that allow customers to purchase bulk foods in refillable packaging. Click here to view the list. However, there are many businesses that allow customers to purchase the exact quantity they would like of food or beverages in the customer’s own packaging for ease-of-use, convenience, and affordability. These may not be formalized systems, but simply a way of doing business that is convenient and affordable.
Philippines Tingi Culture / Sari-Sari Stores
The Filipino “Tingi” culture leads consumers to purchase goods in small amounts due to affordability and convenience. Sari-saris are micro-enterprises that sell common consumer goods in small quantities; there are an estimated 800,000 sari-saris across the Philippines. While currently these sari-saris more commonly sell the products in single-use sachets, there is a “wala usik” (meaning zero waste in Tagalog) movement which is leading the transition of cutting out single-use plastics from sari-saris and transitioning back to refillables. These wala usik sari-saris offer commonly used consumer goods in the small quantities Filipinos are used to, including food and household goods such as cooking oil, rice, vinegar, detergent, and more. While local governments are beginning to take the initiative to regulate single-use plastics, they cannot ban sachets outright. National legislation is underway as well; in January 2022 the Senate passed an Extended Producer Responsibility bill (SBN 2425) which set targets until 2030 for compliance.
Photo credit: SWEEP
African Milk Vendors
Many smallholder milk vendors sell unprocessed milk by volume, allowing customers to fill their own packaging. Milk vendors drop off the milk in large aluminum cans. The customers provide their own container, usually bringing repurposed plastic water drinking bottles, jugs or 5 liter plastic cans, to be filled by the vendor. This practice is common in small towns and villages all over the African continent.
Photo credit: ILRI
A “bank sampah”, or a waste bank, is a type of community-based waste management initiative that allows locals to separate their waste and exchange it for currency in order to divert waste from landfills. In 2020, these waste banks began to partner with reuse solutions in order to support upstream plastic reduction efforts. By partnering with initiatives like Enviu’s Zero Waste Living Lab and Koinpack, the waste bank customers are able to bring empty plastic packaging that can be refilled with home and body care products rather than immediately recycled. Additionally, waste banks are partnering with local governments to help connect them to these upstream solutions.
Problem(s) addressed: Single-Use plastic bags
Connection to database: The Living Landscape includes organizations that allow users to rent and return reusable bags from the grocery store, creating a reusable pooling system for bags that emulates the convenience of a single-use option. This list can be viewed here. The database also includes digital solutions that reward users for bringing their own reusable encouraging behavior change towards a reuse. These solutions can be found here. However, individuals world-wide use reusable items to transport groceries removing the need for single-use packaging.
Supporting Policy: The use of reusable items to transport groceries can be encouraged by policy that outlaws or charges a fee for single-use bags.
Starting with Eritrea in 2005, 34 African countries have implemented some form of ban on single-use plastic bags. An industry of reusable packaging for shopping has arisen to replace the single use plastic bags as the favored carrier for the majority of the population.
Photo credit: Malunde
In 2018 Chile outlawed providing plastic bags to customers in a ban that was implemented over 2 years. This milestone turned Chile into the first country in Latin America to ban them. According to the Environment Minister, 5 billion bags have been avoided since the law went into effect. The first stage consisted of providing the maximum of two plastic bags per purchase. After six months, big stores like supermarkets and retailers couldn’t provide bags anymore. The final phase began in 2020, completely banning bags in micro, small and medium businesses.
Photo credit: COP25
In July 2018 Vanuatu began their first phase of single-use plastic bans which included single-use plastic shopping bags, polystyrene takeaway boxes, and plastic straws. The second phase of the ban, effective December 2019, addressed additional single-use plastics which were found to be high in quantities during a waste audit including: fruit packaging materials such as nylon mesh nets and styrofoam trays, single-use disposable plastic cutlery – knives, forks and spoons, single-use disposable plastic plates, disposable plastic stirrers for coffee and tea, single-use plastic (polyethylene) cups and single-use plastic (polystyrene) cups, plastic (polyethylene) egg cartons, and plastic flowers. Vanuatu’s plastic ban is one of the strictest in the world. The bans have been notably successful due to the small country size, archipelago geography, local culture’s overall respect for the environment and traditional handicrafts which have provided reusable woven bags for generations. A waste survey, conducted a month after the 2018 ban was introduced, found that 12% of household trash was plastic compared to the 15-18% plastic in 2010 and 2014.
Photo credit: HuffPost
Food trucks/ Tea or Coffee Stands
Problem addressed: Single-use foodware
Connection to database: Mobile food and beverage carts can provide citizens with convenient, inexpensive drinks and meals using reusable foodware. Although food carts and stands often use disposable items for convenience, there are many that still use reusables and customers have come to expect reuse as the norm.
Like many parts of the world, street food is widely available for a quick bite to eat. Many street food vendors in India serve food on metal plates, called “Thali”. Once the customer is finished eating, it is returned to the vendor for washing and reuse.
Photo credit: Roadside Indian Food
Food stalls and mobile food carts, called “yatai”, throughout Japan are commonly seen serving dishes like ramen in reusable bowls. Customers can pop in for a quick bite to eat and return the dishes to the vendor. These mobile food stalls have been around for hundreds of years.
Photo credit: SBS
On Premises Restaurant Reuse
Problem addressed: Single-use foodware
Connection to database: The Living Landscape database does not include restaurants that provide reusable foodware to their customers, but does highlight organizations working to make reuse the norm. Organizations are working to promote reusable foodware by promoting businesses that use reusables, helping businesses switch to reusables, and working to ban single-use items for on-site dining. Click here to see the full list of the non-profit reuse advocacy organizations in the database.
Policy Connection: Policies that ban disposable items for on-site dining encourage reuse and help with behavior change in customers towards reuse. The COVID-19 pandemic did limit the use of some reusables for on-site dining, but many of these policies have since been reversed.
South Korea has once again banned using disposable products in cafes and restaurants for on-site dining, which was temporarily permitted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ban, initially imposed in August 2018, was put on hold for two years to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the first half of 2020. The ban will slowly phase in over 2022. On April 1, the regulation was put back in place, but it will be “for information purposes until the COVID-19 situation is resolved.” From June 10, customers will have to pay a deposit between 200 won and 500 won per disposable cup at coffee shops and fast-food franchises. The deposit is returned when customers bring the used cups to the stores for recycling. The regulations will be further strengthened from Nov. 24 as food service businesses will be prohibited from giving out paper cups, plastic straws and stirrers for dine-in customers.
Photo credit: Korea Herald
Photo credit: Surfrider Foundation
Launched nationally in 2018, Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants highlights restaurants across the United States that agree to abide by sustainable practices including only using reusable items for on-site dining, providing paper straws, single-use utensils, and condiments only upon request, not using expanded polystyrene or plastic bags for takeout orders, not selling beverages in plastic bottles, and following proper recycling practices.
ReThink Disposable is a technical assistance program to help food business operators reduce waste and cut costs by minimizing disposable packaging items and replacing them with reusable foodware options. They also assist local jurisdictions with implementing new source reduction strategies and policies that benefit their waste reduction and stormwater pollution prevention programs.
BYO Reusable Cups and Takeout Containers
Problem(s) addressed: Single-use foodware
Connection to database: The database does not include restaurants that allow consumers to bring their own reusable cups and containers since the primary focus of the database is on reuse as a system. However, the database does include programs that encourage people to bring their own reusable foodware. A list of these programs can be found here.
Policy Connection: The COVID-19 pandemic severely limited the number of establishments that allowed users to bring their own reusable foodware. Additionally, in some places the health code limits the use of reusable foodware. Now organizations such as Greenpeace, are working to encourage businesses to allow reusable foodware items.
In 2004, Rwanda passed its first ban on plastics which banned the importation and use of plastics that were less than 100 microns thick. Since then, the country has become increasingly strict on plastics in the country. More recently, in 2018, the country passed a law banning the manufacturing, importation, use and sale of single-use plastics such as straws, bottles and food containers. Large investments have been made to grow the circular economy, including reuse, throughout Rwanda. Further, the legislation is charging fines on wholesalers, retailers and consumers that continue to use single-use plastics. As a result, reuse has become embedded in their daily lives including reusable bags to reusable cups and containers.
California recently passed legislation providing guidelines for restaurants on how to safely allow customers to bring their own reusable containers. This law is expected to aid in the transition to reuse, ease concerns over sanitation issues, and enable consumers to bring their own reusable containers as they often do with water bottles.
France enacted legislation in February 2020 which aims to limit the production of waste, single-use plastics in particular, and enable the circular economy. The law, though not enforced, states that restaurants are obliged to serve customers who bring in their own reusable containers. This law entitled, Anti-waste and Circular Economy Law, will further enable reuse throughout the country.
Photo credit: UNDP
Reuse at Events/ Venues
Problem(s) addressed: Single-use foodware
Connection to database: The Living Landscape database includes companies providing reusable cups and containers for events and festivals. The full list of these providers can be found here. However, in many places reusable foodware is used at events and festivals as a convenient and inexpensive way to provide users with food and beverages.
Photo credit: Banani Vista
The langar, or free community kitchen, is a well-established tradition in Sikhism. Guru ka Langar was initiated by the first Guru of Sikhism around 1481 and established by the third Sikh Guru. The tradition is rooted in the principle of community dining, equality among individuals, and the feelings of unity and sharing. All people sit on the floor together, as equals, to eat the same simple food. The mostly vegetarian meals are served on a reusable thali. Cleanliness is a key part of this tradition and the used thali are washed five times before being utilized again by others. Typically, 90% of the people who prepare, cook, and clean up are volunteers, or Sewadaars. The langar at the Golden Temple Amritsar serves nearly 75,000 individuals per day, the numbers often reach around 100,000 on holidays and religious events, though this practice takes place at all Sikh temples around the world.
German Christmas markets have been an annual occurrence since the 17th century. These markets are complete with food and beverage vendors, gift vendors, rides, candy stalls, and more. Reuse is an integral part of these markets as many vendors do not have bags for purchases and the beverages, including traditional Glühwein, or mulled wine, come in a reusable festive mug which customers pay a deposit for, and then receive their deposit back when they return the mug at the end of their visit.
Oktoberfest originated in 1810 and has since become an annual attraction bringing in millions of visitors from around the world. Much like the Weinachtsmarkt tradition, reuse is an integral part of this festival. When ordering food and beverages, customers pay a deposit, locally known as a "pfand", and receive their deposit back when they return the foodware. This reuse cultural practice continues throughout the year across Biergartens all over Germany.
Photo credit: Happy to Wander
Photo credit: Reuters
It is no surprise that wine festivals are a major part of French culture. These festivals occur all throughout the year and across the country. At these festivals, attendees pay a deposit for a festival branded glass that they are able to take throughout the wine festival for tastings.
Photo credit: Gallivanting Laura