Due to the rapidly growing focus on packaging waste and its visible negative effects, more and more companies are looking for alternatives that are less harmful to the environment. One solution is the use of reusable packaging materials.
The European Commission has drawn up a directive to reduce the volume of plastic waste in the world's oceans and seas. The measures outlined in the so-called SUP Directive pertain to lost fishing gear and disposable plastic objects, including various types of packaging materials that are commonly used in the food-service and out-of-home sectors. The reuse of packaging materials can offer a solution to this problem.
At the moment, only a few types of packaging materials for consumer products are used multiple times. Examples include (standard) beer bottles and crates. In the business sector, also known as business-to-business, there are more applications, including pallets, kegs, bread crates and rolling containers.
Reusable packaging materials can offer myriad benefits for consumer packaging as well. Think of e.g. reducing the volume of waste produced and CO2 emitted per usage cycle. Furthermore, they contribute to the realisation of EU and national targets pertaining to collection and recycling percentages and curbing the use of single-use plastics such as coffee cups, soda bottles and snack trays.
The reappraisal of reusable packaging materials as a potential solution for improved sustainability is also evident from recent initiatives launched by both start-up companies and established parties. The LOOP project by TerraCycle in collaboration with major A-list brands such as Unilever, Danone, Nestlé, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and Pepsico is a good example of this.
Various retailers offer initiatives involving refill packaging for soap, nuts, cosmetics, etcetera.
Considerations when using reusable packaging
- Replacing single-use packaging materials with reusable packaging materials prevents a lot of waste and litter and therefore reduces the costs and environmental impact of waste collection and cleaning up litter.
- Since reusable packaging materials can be used over and over again, it is possible to save the materials and energy needed to produce a multitude of single-use packaging materials. As a result, reusable packaging materials often have a much smaller carbon footprint.
- Reusable packaging materials help countries achieve the target for plastic beverage bottles as recorded in the EU Single-Use Plastics directive (90% separated collection by the year 2029).
- Reusable packaging materials offer myriad new opportunities for marketing and customer retention.
- Setting up a system of reusable packaging materials requires additional administrative efforts (for the correct registration of intake, issuance, stock, deposit-refund, etcetera).
- Cleaning and refilling used packaging materials results in a diffuse responsibility with regard to food safety, spoilage or loss of quality.
- Reusable packaging materials may lead to increased logistical complexity and additional handling and costs at sales points (retail, food-service establishments, on-the-go) because of the need to collect the packaging materials after use.
- At the moment, there are only few standardised packaging materials (with the exception of beer bottles, crates and pallets), which complicates widespread acceptance and implementation.
The European Commission has drawn up a directive to reduce the volume of plastic waste in the world's oceans and seas. The measures outlined in the so-called SUP Directive pertain to lost fishing gear and disposable plastic objects, including various types of packaging materials that are commonly used in the food-service and out-of-home sectors. The Single-Use Plastics directive will enter into force on 3 July 2021. One of the goals is reducing consumption (usage). The use of single-use plastic products for which no suitable alternative is available yet must be measurably reduced by the year 2026.
The use of reusable packaging materials is a measure which can help achieve this target. The report “Reuse: Rethinking packaging,” drawn up by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, contains a diagram of the various types of reuse and refilling of packaging materials.
Environmental analysis (LCA) of single-use versus reusable
It is certainly not true by definition that a reusable packaging has a lower environmental impact than a single-use packaging. This depends on several factors, including the number of times that the packaging can be reused, the impact of the return logistics and the process of cleaning the packaging materials and the recycling rate of the single-use packaging.
However, several LCA studies conducted in recent years do clearly demonstrate that the use of reusable packaging materials generally results in significant environmental benefits.
Situation in various countries
The Plastic Pact NL and the sector plans of the CBL, Thuiswinkel.org and the GroentenFruit Huis, among others, specify targets for the reduction of the volume of packaging materials used.
Infinitum (founded in 1999 as Norsk Resirk) launched a national deposit-refund scheme for the collection and recycling of non-refillable plastic bottles and beverage cans. All packaging materials with a “2 PANT” label are accepted.
Retorna is an umbrella organisation of NGOs and collection and recycling companies that was founded to research why hardly any packaging materials were being reused in Spain. These days, the organisation strives to promote reuse and prevent litter.
Packaging materials and process
When developing sustainable packaging materials, choosing the right material and packaging process is an important step. When choosing a material, you are basically also choosing a packaging process. This combination determines which packaging types you can produce.
Here is an example: suppose you want to package soup. You not only have to choose a material, for example glass, plastic or metal, but also a packaging type, for example a glass bottle, a glass jar, a plastic bag, or a metal can. Each of these options calls for a specific processing process, since filling a glass jar requires entirely different production lines than filling a flexible bag.
The choice for a sustainable packaging solution is therefore not only limited to the sustainability of packaging materials. In addition to the material itself, the packaging process and the logistical process also affect the sustainability. This section therefore contains both information about material selection and raw materials as well as points of attention for the packaging process, packaging systems, and logistics.
Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of one-way plant trays versus returnable plant trays
Paper – published by Royal Flora Holland
Deposit Return Systems: an effective Instrument towards a Zero Waste Future
Paper – published by Zero Waste Europe
Best Practices for the Successful Implementation of Reusables in the Supply Chain
Best practice – published by Reusable Packaging Association
Guidelines for Safe Use of Reusable Containers in Supply Chains
Paper – published by Food Quality & Safety
Reusable transport packaging
Best practice – published by Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging