Measuring reusable packaging’s environmental credentials

By Dr. Ziynet Boz, assistant professor of sustainable food systems engineering at the University of Florida, US

The plastics dilemma

Closing the loops in material use is a challenge. It is imperative to develop smaller loops to minimize material function losses throughout the life cycle. In many situations, even discarded materials are utilized in various outlets with lesser quality needs. Potting et al., (2017) coined a 9R approach ranking priorities concerning circularity as (i) smarter manufacturing and product use (i.e., Refuse, Rethink, Reduce), (ii) extending the life cycle of the products (i.e., Reuse, Repair, Refurbish), (iii) suitable treatment of materials (i.e., Recycle, Recover) (Figure 1).

In this structure, as the circularity level increases, there is a greater need for innovations in circularity-oriented designs, revenue models, and socio-institutional change. Generally, the higher the circularity, the better the environmental performance. For example, when the product lifespan is extended, the materials will remain in use longer for the same purpose, thus, a lesser need for resource extraction and manufacturing. Nevertheless, creating models and designs usually lead to increased resource consumption with higher energy use and unintended rebound effect. For example, the process energy use during recycling of materials is usually the biggest contributor to Global Warming Potential, acidification, eutrophication, etc., despite performing favorably against landfill management and incineration (Björklund & Finnveden, 2005). Additionally, rebound effects such as increased product use resulting from available services have previously been mentioned (Ottelin et al., 2020). Therefore, it is important to investigate the environmental impacts and limitations of circularity models in the packaging value chain.

The plastics dilemma

Figure 1. Circularity approaches (9Rs) with a priority for better environmental performance (Adapted from Potting et al., 2017.)

Reusable packaging

One way to achieve an improved circularity is through the implementation of reusable packaging. The main benefits include reduced single-use material use through circular options, life cycle value retention, and additional economic benefits. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, replacing just 20 percent of plastics packaging with reusable alternatives can provide an economic opportunity of more than US$10 billion (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019).
The sustainable packaging market, including reusable, biodegradable, and recyclable packaging, is expected to increase by 5.7 percent by 2024. The global returnable packaging market is expected to reach US$153.35 billion by 2028 (Grand View Research, 2021).

Business cases with tangible economic benefits will be the primary impetus of environmentally meaningful outcomes. Consumer attitudes toward sustainable packaging solutions have motivated multinational companies such as Nestlé, Unilever, P&G and PepsiCo to step up their reusable packaging efforts as part of the sustainability commitments.

Environmental considerations for reusable packaging

Environmental impacts are assessed with the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) or Material Flow Analysis (MFA) methods, which have historically focused on B2B solutions as an indication of higher implementation rates and market-driven impetus at this level. The major environmental impacts of reusable packaging lie in the actual transport distances (e.g., reverse logistics) due to energy use, pooling (e.g., sorting, sanitation, maintenance), strict cleaning regimes (e.g., water use) for the food industry to prevent film formation and contamination from potential microbial growth, return rates, and impacts on product damage rates.

Perhaps one of the most significant benefits and market incentives comes from adopting reusable transport packaging schemes. An earlier Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) study compared the display-ready containers to the reusable plastic containers (RPCs) for ten different products for energy, waste, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) and found that RPCs yield 39 percent, 95 percent, and 29 percent reductions in energy, total solid waste, and GHGs, respectively (Singh et al., 2006).

Such high environmental impact improvements are driven by the number of trips for a particular RPC and how long the RPC’s are kept in circulation. As a result, the manufacturing impacts from material extraction and conversion can be allocated instead over multiple return rates. Even in a conservative scenario with low return and high loss rates, eight out of ten times RPCs performed better than the low-weight, recyclable corrugated containers. The impacts for RPCs can further be reduced by designing for extended life in a closed-loop circulation with lightweight and end-of-life recycling.

Reusable Packaging.jpg

Reusable packaging’s benefits include reduced single-use material use, life cycle value retention, and economic benefits.

Systems level innovation

Another opportunity is to assess consumer-level reuse strategies such as LCA-driven strategies and understand the consumer motivations toward reusable and returnable structures to create systems-level innovation. In another study from the UK, the attitude of consumers toward reusable packaging systems and the LCI of single-use takeaway containers (e.g., from expanded polystyrene (EPS), polypropylene (PP), bagasse trays), and reusable and returnable containers made of steel and PP, were compared (Greenwood et al., 2021). The reusable options here also had lower impacts than single-use on global warming, land use, and water consumption.

Accordingly, reusable options from PP-based return and refill containers need to be used 2-4 times, whereas steel tin with lid needs to be reused 13-33 times to break even with the Global Warming Potential of the single-use containers. Consistent with the previous literature, the lowest impact for single-use materials came from the EPS container due to lightweight properties. The effect of material weight on environmental impact parameters is the most influencing factor for refillable and returnable containers based on the sensitivity analysis.

Consumer perspective

The consistent, high-quality appearance of the packaging over multiple use cycles is an important parameter from the consumer perspective since multiple uses or return cycles are necessary for all environmental impact categories.

Consumers have shown a lower willingness to packaging reuse (13 percent) when offered the options of recycling (53 percent) and disposal (34 percent) when glass packaging for milk and coffee or biscuits in a metal tin were the primary reusable options (Greenwood et al., 2021). However, it is challenging to design packaging that can maintain properties throughout a series of washing and handling cycles, which may translate to a need for increased inputs and resources. Since consumer engagement in reuse and return activities is crucial for these systems’ environmental, motivation and intentions can be influential factors. The context was found to be important, meaning the settings need to be adjusted to make the return process easier and more comfortable (Ertz et al., 2017).

Culture of origin was also found to be a determining parameter. Training the public about general environmental issues, cultural-based adjustments in different countries, and maintaining the sustainable image of the product can improve attitudes. Incentives such as refunds, vouchers, and discounts can positively impact consumer loyalty. The effort of companies to communicate their sustainability efforts transparently supported by scientific data from robust LCA studies will prevent greenwashing. Recycling is the norm in many sustainable-consumption approaches, and reuse efforts at the consumer level can begin with focusing on product-specific solutions (e.g., milk, coffee, etc.) as well as trial periods to improve familiarity with the return programs. In addition, logistics disruptions incorporating cleaning and sanitation schemes are required. Food industry applications are associated with strict individual cleaning schemes due to food safety issues and will need to be incorporated into water conservation practices. Reusable packaging will probably need more durable and heavier materials. The number of reuse cycles will determine the packaging material per weight of food used.

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For consumers, reusable packaging’s high-quality appearance over multiple use cycles is an important parameter.

Favorable trend toward reusable packaging

Regardless of the level of reusable packaging solutions, existing LCA studies show a generally favorable trend toward reusable packaging. There is a clear need for studies to aid decision-making in logistics and management with an environmental sustainability perspective. Such studies should incorporate several use-case scenarios: disposal, the protective function of packaging for foods (e.g., shelf life extension and structural support), and parameterization of the realistic shipping distances in LCAs, etc.

The economic opportunities emerging from the environmentally beneficial aspects of reusable packaging will be critical since the circular economy concept is based on an economic growth model to benefit businesses, the environment, and societies. Despite economic performance necessities, life cycle costing (LCC) studies are rarely performed, especially for consumer-level applications. Integrated LCA and LCC studies will help decision-makers to gauge the tradeoffs through an objective lens.

The packaging industry has a long way to go before the tangible benefits can be revealed. First, economic and policy incentives should be in place. Local and international policies allocating costs to producers or consumers will have different implications. In addition, the environmental assessment studies should be communicated with data and evidence-based research. Regardless of the strategies, reusable packaging can offer greater environmental and economic outcomes than single-use packaging incorporating linear economy models.


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