Reusable take-away packaging could present a compelling climate case over single-use alternatives if return and washing systems are properly implemented and optimised, 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 respective single-use plastic or paper containers.


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 optimised reuse system.


The research found that the adoption of reusable containers within a well-designed reuse system has 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.


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).


Aline Maigret, Head of Policy at Zero Waste Europe, emphasised: “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.”


Clarissa Morawski of Reloop stated: “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.”


Andy Grant, Technical Director at Eunomia Research & Consulting, said: “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.”

Geir Sæther, SVP Circular Economy, Head of TOMRA Reuse, added: “Based on our vision Leading the Resource Revolution, TOMRA is 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. To achieve these results, it is important to understand key system requirements, and implement well-working solutions for reusable packaging. Designed incorrectly, a reuse system could even have negative environmental impacts. TOMRA’s partnership with Aarhus municipality to roll out the world’s first reuse system of its kind is therefore a great opportunity.”

“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.”