Reusable takeaway packaging has significant potential to reduce carbon footprint vs single-use options

Miruna Macsim 05/09/2023 | 12:07

Reusable takeaway packaging could present a compelling climate case over single-use alternatives if return and washing systems are properly implemented and optimized, according to a new study today from Zero Waste Europe, Reloop, and TOMRA.

In nearly all types of packaging examined, it found that reusable packaging can significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to single-use plastic or paper containers.

“Focusing on the potential for reducing GHG emissions, this study reiterates the relevance of switching from single-use packaging to reusable ones. As institutional negotiators are gearing up for the negotiations of the packaging rules in the EU, we count on them to acknowledge this potential by mandating ambitious reuse targets,” emphasized Aline Maigret, Head of Policy at Zero Waste Europe.

The study, “Assessing Climate Impact: Reusable Systems vs. Single-Use Takeaway Packaging” was produced by Eunomia Research & Consulting and looked at the GHG emissions associated across a wide range of common takeaway packaging, including cups, burger boxes, bowls, pizza boxes, and sushi containers, comparing single-use to reusable packaging in an optimized reuse system.

“Unlocking the potential of smart reuse lies in crafting systems that harness our collective design experience, optimising processes from design to deposit return, embracing reverse logistics, and perfecting the art of washing. As we pave the way for the business of the future, let’s ensure policies are in place to nurture and champion this transformative journey towards sustainability and innovation,” stated Clarissa Morawski of Reloop.

The research found that the adoption of reusable containers within a well-designed reuse system has the potential to reduce GHG emissions for most packaging options. The only exception to this was pizza boxes which will likely need further innovations in design to fully unlock the benefits of reuse. For example even a 20% reduction in the weight of a reusable pizza box – equivalent to 85 grams – could tip the scales in favour of reuse.

The study revealed each container’s breakeven point, the point at which reuse matches the carbon footprint of single-use, for greenhouse gas emissions within a robust return system. It found that returning a bowl thirteen times or a coffee cup just six times proved sufficient to break even, with any further returns becoming a net positive in terms of carbon emissions avoided.

“The extent to which carbon benefits could be realised differs by each container type, with the strongest case for reusable cups which we calculate could break even with single-use after only six returns in an optimised return system. There is still work to do for larger and heavier containers such as pizza boxes which as things stand will be difficult to justify for reuse, and will require more innovations in design to find their place,” said Andy Grant, Technical Director at Eunomia Research & Consulting.

Set in the “near-future” of 2030, the report envisions reusable packaging reaching a steady state whereby it can be collected, washed, and redistributed through a centralised means. 

Building upon the recent evaluation of life cycle assessments conducted by Zero Waste Europe and Reloop, this study urges policymakers to fight for a cleaner 2030, particularly as discussions commence shortly on the forthcoming reuse targets within the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations (PPWR). 

“Based on our vision Leading the Resource Revolution, TOMRA feels obligated to contribute with attractive and efficient solutions for reusable take-away packaging. Mainly based on the solutions’ potential to reduce GHG emissions, but also due to proven effects on litter reduction and contribution to a circular economy. These are all positive results of pushing the targeted packaging application up the waste hierarchy. Understanding and defining key requirements for well-working systems based on reusable packaging has been key to TOMRA, as implementing a badly designed reuse system could have a negative environmental impact. Winning Aarhus municipality’s tender to roll out the world’s first reuse system of its kind is a great opportunity for us, added Geir SætherSVP Circular Economy, Head of TOMRA Reuse.

The outcomes of this study hold great promise for guiding the implementation of effective reusable systems, emphasising the potential for emissions reduction and the significance of meticulous system design. The researchers call for large-scale trials to further validate and refine these findings.

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