Reath: Digital Infrastructure for Packaging Reuse
Single use packaging poses a huge environmental problem. The cosmetics industry alone produces 142 billion pieces of packaging every year – and less than 10 percent gets recycled. Pioneering environmental campaigners and data experts, Claire Rampen and Emily Rogers, decided to do something about it. Together, they founded Reath, a software company that helps businesses adopt safe, compliant and scalable reuse systems.
For a recent episode of our podcast on the Circular Economy, we talked to Claire and Emily about their inspiring mission to build a digital infrastructure for circular systems.
“Imagine a world in which you never have to throw anything away again,” says Emily. The path to this lofty goal is full of firsts, and the duo are continually venturing into uncharted territory. The first step in their journey was finding out the barriers to adopting reusable packaging, simply by emailing numerous cosmetics brands to ask.
They soon identified three key challenges. Firstly, health and safety legislation makes it difficult to reuse packaging. “Most packaged goods have a batch code stamped on them,” explains Claire. The batch code connects the product and packaging, which allows businesses to recall products if necessary. Secondly, many brands claimed that their systems were built for a linear economy, not a circular one. For example, their inventory management systems could handle buying packaging, filling it and shipping it out – but not receiving it back again. Thirdly, businesses said they were unable to decide to change their systems, or how to change them, due to a lack of data. “No one really knows how many times a piece of packaging is going to be reused, and therefore how to design for that, and how robust to make that piece of packaging. If you make it durable, it's a waste of resources. But if you make it too flimsy, it won't be used as many times as it could be,” continues Claire. “It felt to us like data was really something that could connect the dots on all these problems – and that was where we began.”
Claire and Emily set out to solve these problems with software, and Reath was born. The software accurately collects and stores so-called ‘critical compliance data’, which includes batch codes and other features designed to keep consumers safe. To do this, they built a track and trace system, which harnesses machine-readable trackers to follow each piece of packaging through every step of its journey. “You get this really nice digital ledger,” says Claire, “which shows exactly what's been in that piece of packaging, when it was cleaned, what cleaning process was used... And you can start to build up an idea of the reuse rate – how many times it's gone round and round your system.” The duo’s vision is to build on those data processing capabilities and be able to feed back more information so businesses can optimize their systems.
For Reath, the overarching goal is systemic change, and this requires collaboration. “The world today has been designed and optimized for throwaway culture,” says Emily. “I can take something, make something out of it, use it and then get rid of it. So we wanted to put the kind of technology backbone in place for how the world is going to cope with that ‘getting rid of’ stage, and have it coming back in the loop.”
They strongly believe that there are ways to share data that don't infringe upon a company’s need to protect their position, and blazed a trail by creating an Open Data Standard for reusable packaging. To do this, Claire and Emily spoke to diverse potential stakeholders to find out what they might want to contribute and get from an Open Data Standard. From obvious collaborators like packaging producers and retailers, to environmental protection agencies, trading standards, health and safety legislators, and waste management companies, the ecosystem is vast.
For Reath, the near future involves helping larger companies to reuse their packaging, while applying their system to personal protective equipment (PPE), which has surged in use since the start of the pandemic. “Our focus is very much on packaging, but these other opportunities demonstrate where circular systems can be run safely, in a compliant way, and digitally,” concludes Claire.