According to FEFCO, single-use corrugated cardboard demonstrates a lower environmental impact than reusable plastic packaging solutions based on an analysis conducted by Ramboll and VTT. However, the performance of both single-use and reusable packaging varied between different sustainability categories, ultimately suggesting that there are costs and benefits to both depending on their application.

FEFCO argues that the conclusions of these analyses should encourage European policymakers to consider the suitability of packaging materials on a case-by-case basis rather than prioritise reuse in all circumstances. Can comparing materials – and, in some cases, pitting reuse against recycling – actually provide actionable solutions when it comes to facilitating a circular economy for packaging?

A complicated comparison 

The first study commissioned by FEFCO and conducted by Ramboll is a peer-reviewed comparative life-cycle assessment (LCA) that aims to compare the environmental impacts of corrugated cardboard boxes and plastic crates when transporting products over average distances in Europe.

The LCA encompasses different stakeholders along the business-to-business (B2B) supply chain, including raw material producers, manufacturers of corrugated board solutions, transport companies, retailers, and service providers involved in reprocessing plastic crates (e.g., washing operations). The specific scenario considered by the LCA is the non-refrigerated shipping of fruits and vegetables by average means of transport, such as trucks, along statistically frequented routes in Europe.

The materials studied were a single-use corrugated cardboard box, made of Kraftliner and semi-chemical fluting, and a multiple-use plastic crate, made of HDPE and PP formed through injection moulding. The LCA analysis identifies a baseline recycling rate of 82.9% for the corrugated cardboard compared to a 41.8% recycling rate for the plastic crate at end-of-life, with the remainder being sent for waste-to-energy applications.

Both materials were studied across fifteen categories. According to FEFCO, corrugated board systems performed better across 10 of the 15 impact categories in the LCA. This reportedly includes benefits in the climate change category, as well as for resource and water use, human toxicity, and ecotoxicity.

The LCA suggests that the environmental impacts of single-use corrugated cardboard are mainly linked to the manufacturing process and wastepaper recycling. Despite demonstrating comparative benefits relating to climate change, this category – along with eutrophication, fossil resource use, particulate formation, and photochemical ozone formation – nonetheless contributed to around 80% of the corrugated board’s total impact.

Meanwhile, for the multiple-use plastic crates, environmental impacts were primarily related to the washing and sanitising requirements after use. Climate change, particulate matter, and fossil resource use contribute to approximately 80% of the crate’s total impact, according to the report. However, the multiple-use plastic crates also appear to present comparative benefits when it comes to acidification, eutrophication (both marine and terrestrial), particulate matter, and photochemical ozone formation.

In addition, FEFCO claims that the break-even analysis found that plastic crates would need to reach a minimum of 63 rotations to outperform corrugated boxes in the climate change impact category. The LCA, however, suggests that the average reuse rate of plastic reusable crates is 24 rotations, which fails to meet this metric.

Where in the value chain are environmental impacts most evident?

Ramboll also supplied FEFCO with a hot-spot analysis of the e-commerce supply chain, again to evaluate recyclable corrugated cardboard against reusable plastic solutions. The scope of the hot-spot analysis included information on online retail platforms, automated processes, packaging weight and void space, and transport logistics. The report defines a hotspot as “a life cycle stage, process or elementary flow which accounts for a significant proportion of the impact of the functional unit”.

FEFCO says that the analysis identifies 51 hot-spots in total. One of the hot-spots highlighted by FEFCO is the lack of data available on the scale of reusable plastic packaging solutions, with the data that is accessible sometimes providing unreliable or contradictory parameters for reusability.

As such, one of the key suggestions from the hot-spot analysis is that more studies into the real number of (re)uses possible for multiple-use packaging are needed from both research institutions and packaging producers. FEFCO also points to a lack of official EU data on reuse numbers. Greater availability of such data will be an important asset in making informed policy decisions on packaging types.

In addition, the return rate for reusable plastic packaging is also uncertain, reportedly ranging between 70% and 97%. According to the report, the theft rate for reusable packaging is relatively high, especially for customised products, which is an issue that is apparently overlooked in many studies that provide the existing data on returns. The overall environmental performance of reusable packaging is significantly impacted by the return rate, but the current difficulty with quantifying this can make comparisons with single-use packaging types more difficult.

However, the hot-spot analysis does suggest that multiple-use solutions could generate lower potential climate-related emissions when compared with single-use solutions. For example, the report says that reusable packaging, especially made of flexible plastic, is easier to use for smaller items that do not need protection, meaning that each item is lighter and more items can be transported in a single trip.

FEFCO itself identifies logistical parameters, particularly transport distances, loading capacity, and sorting, as a key hot-spot with a major impact on the emissions and life cycle of a product. Therefore, smaller, flexible, reusable packaging may allow for fewer journeys and thus a lower overall impact during transportation when compared to more structured, single-use packaging like corrugated cardboard boxes.

Policy points

The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. conducted a study to investigate packaging recycling and reuse, and the role each plays in the European circular economy, on behalf of FEFCO. The white paper produced by VTT compares the functionality, performance, and sustainability of reusable and recyclable packaging in the context of EU policy and legislation, including the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) and the European Green Deal.

One of the key conclusions of the white paper, as identified by FEFCO, is ensuring that packaging is ‘fit for purpose’. ‘Fit for purpose’ packaging that is designed to effectively contain and protect a product across the supply chain can prevent losses, in terms of both overpackaging and damage to the product itself, according to the organisations. FEFCO says that ‘fit for purpose’ design should therefore be a central part of the PPWD.

FEFCO also acknowledges that both recyclable corrugated and reusable plastic packaging could provide appropriate solutions depending on the requirements of the product itself. As VVT writes, “packaging should always be considered together with the packaged product”, which will provide the context needed to decide on the most appropriate packaging type.

Therefore, the white paper says that recyclable single-use and reusable packaging should be considered as “complementary solutions” in legislation. FEFCO adds that this demonstrates the need to avoid a one-size-fits-all policy, and instead allow packaging types to be selected on a case-by-case basis.

Like the Ramboll LCA and hot-spot analysis, the white paper also suggests that more data should be collected on packaging reuse in order to inform policy decisions. FEFCO adds that it believes environmental impacts may shift, but not disappear entirely, if reuse systems are scaled. It also claims that reusable systems involve substantial economic investments to begin with, adding that – perhaps due to a lack of data – there is no guarantee of success.

VVT also concludes that stakeholder collaboration across supply chains is vital for making decisions on packaging. As the appropriateness of different solutions may vary between industries, collaboration apparently provides the insights needed to facilitate packaging optimisation and prevent unintended environmental or economic consequences.

For both single-use and reusable packaging, VVT emphasises that policy should encourage innovation. VVT says that this is an essential element for complying with both reuse and recycling targets, as well as for facilitating a climate-neutral circular economy.

Eleni Despotou, director general of FEFCO, comments: “Based on evidence, it is critical to consider that expressing a clear preference for reusable versus recyclable packaging is a narrowminded approach.

“Legislative proposals must ensure that any packaging placed on the EU market is ‘fit for purpose,’ environmentally friendly, fulfils its functionality and prevents unnecessary waste which is the ultimate objective of policymakers.”

Further context

This is not the first study to have cast doubt on the sustainable credentials of reusable packaging.

The European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA) also commissioned an LCA by Ramboll, which compared reusable and single-use tableware. The EPPA claimed that the energy and resource intensity of the washing process for reusable tableware proves it has a poorer environmental performance compared to single-use paper and cardboard options. However, other data on reusable packaging found that the impact of the washing process was much lower, which – like the studies outlined by FEFCO – point to a lack of consistent and reliable data.

Similarly, Mondi says that an independent LCA comparing its Advantage StretchWrap paper, a paper-based solution for wrapping pallets, with conventional plastic stretch films found that its solution offered a lower climate impact. Overall, however, the LCA suggested that neither the paper-based wrap nor the stretch film provided a clear benefit over the other in terms of environmental impact.

FEFCO, EPPA, and Mondi all have a vested interest in demonstrating the sustainable potential of fibre-based packaging over plastic alternatives. Nonetheless, the research commissioned by these three organisations does not fully conclude that single-use, fibre-based packaging is beneficial across all sustainability categories and in all product scenarios.

Of course, a critical approach to reusable packaging is also needed to develop and scale solutions without exacerbating product waste or packaging pollution. There are some significant challenges posed by reusable packaging. With the return rate of reusables having a large impact on their environmental performance, consumer engagement will be key to keeping these packaging types in circulation. There are some suggestions that existing reuse solutions, such as refill stations in supermarkets, are not yet easy or efficient enough to overtake single-use options, which implies a challenge in terms of scalability.

The FEFCO-commissioned research specifically encompasses reusable plastic packaging. Materials like glass, aluminium, and steel could be well-suited to reuse applications due to their durability, while also offering a recycling rate on par with paper packaging, one of its main comparative environmental benefits as highlighted by FEFCO. In 2020, for example, APEAL reported that the recycling rate for steel packaging in Europe reached 85.5%. However, these materials have energy-intensive production processes, and their heaviness can add to the carbon burden of transport.

With sustainability costs, benefits, and trade-offs across all packaging types, it seems that pitting materials – and, in turn, reuse and recycling – against each other can add further uncertainty when it comes to decision-making and developing legislation. The lack of decisive data on whether single-use or reusable packaging is best ultimately points to a similar conclusion made by FEFCO: there is no one-size-fits-all solution.