Visualising Returnable Packaging Systems

The UK discards 100 billion plastic packaging pieces annually, underscoring the vital role of organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They create evidence-based original research on the benefits of a circular economy, and how it can contribute to solving global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. We collaborated with the Foundation's Plastic Initiative to communicate their vision of scalable returnable packaging systems, producing a series of detailed animations and illustrations.

We partnered on



Planning & Problem Solving

The Foundation's Vision

At the heart of the Foundation’s Plastic Initiative is a vision of a circular economy for plastic in which it 'never becomes waste'. In the case of this project, the focus is grocery (including beverage, food and personal care) packaging. Consumers visit the supermarket or shop, and every item they buy is encased in reusable packaging that (once they’re finished with their product) they return to be washed and refilled.

With the help of reuse partners and experts, the Foundation has modelled how these systems could work in reality. With a goal of inspiring collective action toward building the returnable system of the future, in practice and at scale. But as you might have guessed - as well as being very impressive, these models are also very complex.

As well as illustrating how a returnable packaging system could work, the Foundation also wanted to show different ‘levels’ of reuse. Ranging from least to most ambitious (the most ambitious being the most harmonious, effective and least energy intensive system).

They needed a creative partner to help them translate this research into a ‘design-led, visual, and explorative piece’ that could catch the attention of key brands and retailers, as well as policy makers and the finance sector.
Working with Yoke to bring to life a future reusable packaging system has been a vital part of our storytelling work on this complex topic. The team's creative, patient and thoughtful approach ensured what we created was captivating and visionary, while ensuring the information was clear and accurate.

Mark Buckley - Strategic Design Manager, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Key challenges for Yoke:

As part of this project, we had to contend with several key challenges.

Firstly, we needed to work out how best to bring these systems to life in a way that is both informative and true to the meticulous level of data being conveyed, but also captivating and enjoyable to look at. We worked hard to strike a balance between ensuring the visuals are easy to understand, while not oversimplifying the lifecycle of the packaging being handled.

Secondly, we had to ensure we were accurately illustrating the differences between each level of ambition within the system. Showing very precise volumes of packaging and vehicles, as well as methods of collection or drop off, that would be employed between different levels.

Thirdly, we were charged with building a style that felt broadly relatable to audiences across Europe (and even globally) without being too rooted in any one place. And in the same vein, building cohesiveness between the animations and illustrations, ensuring they felt tonally and aesthetically connected - like they existed in the same world.


Beginning with a detailed brief from the Foundation, we were able to understand the nuances of these systems - as well as their differing levels of ambition. Including factors like how many lorries would be moving packaging around, how and where packaging would be collected, cleaned and refilled, and what a cleaning and sorting facility would look like inside.

We then got to work building a snapshot of a city that could include all stages of this system. This process included many collaborative hands on ‘town planning’ sessions with some of the Foundation's team. Which ultimately resulted in three cityscape animations, ranging from most to least ambitious. Bringing to life the cyclical journey a piece of packaging would take from retailer, to home, to cleaning, sorting and refilling.  

We then illustrated three ‘close ups’ of different stages of these cityscapes. Giving viewers a deeper understanding of each system level, and providing a more nuanced and characterful look at each stage in the packaging’s journey.


We hope that these animations and illustrations bring to life this important research. And help catalyse the adoption of better, more circular systems by offering policymakers, retailers, manufacturers and consumers an inspiring glimpse into this potential future. Making it clear how returnable packaging systems like the ones the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have conceived could work in reality.