A new report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) shows that returnable plastic packaging could lower greenhouse gas emissions and water use, by 35% to 70% respectively, compared with single-use plastics.
The ‘Scaling returnable packaging’ study focuses on returnable packaging, which once bought and returned, is professionally cleaned and refilled before being sold again.
Developed in partnership with Systemiq and Eunomia, and with input from more than 60 organisations including major brands and retailers, the study assesses the environmental and financial impacts of reusable versus single-use packaging for drinks bottles, fresh food, ambient groceries and personal care bottles.
EMF Said its modeling shows that returnable plastic packaging “has better environmental outcomes than single-use plastic packaging across almost all scenarios, applications, and performance indicators that were studied”.
The benefits are dependent upon the application and scale. For example, the top range of savings can be achieved in large-scale reuse systems (~40% of the market), with high return rates (95%, ~15 loops) and highly optimised transport. But even at lower scale and without standardised packaging or industry-wide collaboration, most applications achieve positive environmental outcomes, EMF said.
In a scenario with medium return rates (80%, ~5 loops), for all rigid-to-rigid packaging comparisons, returnable packaging shows greenhouse gas emissions savings (12–22%) and material use reductions (34–48%) compared to single-use. Water use is reduced across the board by 16% to 40%.
The research also shows the economics of reuse systems can work too. “It’s a real breakthrough to have proven such a compelling business case for industry collaboration and reusable packaging standardisation, and to understand exactly the conditions and applications for which the business case makes sense,” said Yoni Shiran, partner and plastics lead at Systemiq.
The study comes in the same week that the latest talks to deliver a global plastics treaty ended with little signs of progress. The plastics industry and oil-producing countries want the focus to be on management and recycling of plastic, while campaigners argue that plastic production needs to decrease.
This week, the European Parliament also voted in favour of watering down new rules to increase reusable packaging across the foodservice sector.
Jean-Pierre Schwetizer, circular economy manager at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said of the EMF report: “Now the pressure is on policymakers to create the necessary legislative conditions for reuse to thrive, and on business leaders in the fast-moving consumer goods sectors to change their practices, adopting truly circular solutions to end our addiction to single-use packaging.”