On December 7, 2020, civil society organization Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) announced in a press release the publication of a new study finding that reusable packaging has 85% lower carbon emissions than single-use alternatives.
Single-use plastics are reported to represent 36% of municipal solid waste, and in May 2019, the EU announced a ban on some single-use plastic items (FPF reported). Current waste reduction efforts focus a lot on recycling as the main method to reduce the waste stream. Nevertheless, ZWE explains that this approach represents the least favorable of all waste management options after reusing, repurposing, or remanufacturing.
The aim of the published report was to “understand the benefits of reuse by evaluating the multi-layered environmental impacts of both single-use and reusable types of packaging through an in-depth comparative analysis of 32 Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies.”
The authors found single-use glass bottles overall had the highest carbon emissions of all packaging types, a result also confirmed by a recent LCA study by Brock et al (FPF reported). Reusable glass bottles were found to have 85% lower emissions compared to single-use bottles, 75% fewer carbon emissions than single-use PET bottles, and 57% fewer carbon emissions than aluminum cans. The “breakpoint” of a reusable glass bottle, at which it begins to result in fewer carbon emissions than a new glass bottle, is already reached after two to three cycles of reuse. The carbon emissions emitted from the glass bottle’s production were also found to be entirely compensated for after 10 cycles of reuse. However, the authors recommend reusable packaging “be used as long as possible to further decrease the impact of the entire products’ life cycle.”
The report also compared the impacts of the individual life stages of production, transport, and end of life. Notably, the authors concluded that the distance and mode of transport have the largest contribution to a packaging’s environmental impact.
The authors suggest five key measures that can be taken to achieve higher “sustainability” of reusables: (1) increasing the addition of recycled content during production, (2) ensuring enough reuse cycles to compensate for the impacts from production, (3) ensuring recycling at the product end-stage, (4) implementing a stronger standardization of packaging, (5) reducing impacts from transportation by minimizing weight, substituting for a lighter material, and/or changing means of transport, and finally (5) widely implementing deposit return schemes.
Lead author Larissa Copello, consumption and production campaigner at Zero Waste Europe, commented that “the report reinforces the need to stop looking at packaging as an essential asset to a product, and to start focusing on efficiency and rethinking the current way of delivering products to consumers.”
Zero Waste Europe (December 7, 2020). “Press Release: Independent analysis reveals reusable packaging up to 85% more climate-friendly than single-use.”
Zero Waste Europe (December 3, 2020). “Executive summary: Reusable VS single-use packaging – A review of environmental impact.”
Zero Waste Europe (December 7, 2020). “Reusable vs single-use packaging, A review of environmental impacts” (pdf)