Single-use beats reusable

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European study: reusable packaging comes off worst in sustainability comparison

Amendment to Packaging Act ignores facts and consumers’ wishes

Paper-based food and drink packaging used in fast-food restaurants is better for the environment than the reusable alternatives. That is the conclusion of a recent study commissioned by the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA). According to experts, the results of this scientific study inevitably raise the question of whether the German Federal Government is on the right track with its recently adopted amendment to the Packaging Act. Clearly not, say the experts. 

According to draft legislation from the German Federal Government, businesses that sell food or drinks for consumption off the premises will be obliged to offer their products in reusable packaging from 2023 onwards. According to the planned amendment, the reusable version must not be more expensive than the corresponding single-use solution. Only businesses with a maximum retail space of 80 square metres and no more than five employees will be exempt from these requirements. However, in future even such small outlets will have to fill any containers that customers themselves bring.

With the new rules in the Packaging Act adopted by the Federal Cabinet on 20 January 2021, the German Government is aiming to implement the provisions of the amended Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC and the Single-Use Plastics Directive (EU) 2019/904. As the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) said when it announced the draft legislation, the aim is also to give consumers the choice between single-use and reusable packaging and to reduce the consumption of single-use packaging in the long term.

Single-use packaging is eco-friendlier

But here experts raise the question of whether the intention of the Federal Government in amending the Packaging Act is not missing the facts and thereby massively impairing the sense and purpose of the undertaking. This is because so far there is no evidence whatsoever that reusable packaging is fundamentally more sustainable and better for the protection of the environment than single-use packaging. Quite the contrary! A life cycle assessment (LCA) commissioned by EPPA and carried out by the Danish consulting company Ramboll, which also advises the EU Commission, made it abundantly clear that the energy and water required to clean reusable tableware in such a way that it meets the hygienic requirements for reuse by consumers has a considerable negative impact on the life cycle assessment of reusable products. The authors of the study compared the environmental impact of typical single-use and reusable food and beverage packaging for consumption on the premises in snack restaurants for a year.

The study dispelled the myth about the benefit of reusable packaging over single-use packaging. EPPA Executive Director Hans van Schaik summarised the results of the analysis as follows: “The Ramboll study shows that preferential treatment for reusable tableware in fast-food restaurants would have significantly harmful effects on climate change, fresh-water consumption, depletion of fossil resources, formation of particulate matter and soil acidification compared to single-use tableware.” This is because, according to the Ramboll LCA, reusable tableware generates 177 per cent more CO2 emissions than disposable paper-based tableware, uses 267 per cent more fresh water, produces 132 per cent more particulate matter, exacerbates fossil resource depletion by 238 per cent and increases soil acidification by 72 per cent.

Plastic is better than paper

If one now also considers the results of other international scientific life cycle analyses, which prove that plastic packaging materials have a significantly more favourable environmental impact and lower social costs than, for example, packaging materials made of paper, in the opinion of the experts this casts the amendment to the Packaging Act presented by the Federal Cabinet in an even worse light. The experts say the Government is clearly on the wrong track here. Not least because the statements of the EPPA study on the ecological benefits of single-use packaging for food and beverages compared to reusable alternatives can be transferred to plastic packaging. 

Recyclability is important

Moreover, the authors of the amendment seem to be completely disregarding the wishes and will of the consumer. According to a recent representative survey by the WWF and the German Packaging Institute (DVI), a large majority of Germans want a beverage deposit and sustainable solutions for take-away and delivery services. According to the survey, Germans clearly do not prefer reusable containers, but would rather have recyclable ones. This means that it is not only from the DVI’s point of view that Germans are showing more understanding for sustainability solutions than the current amendment to the Packaging Act. In the survey, 78.5 per cent of those questioned were basically in favour of sustainable packaging – and thus ultimately in favour of single-use containers, as the results of the EPPA study indicate. Recyclable disposable containers for disposal via the Dual System topped the list of favourites with 51.5 per cent. According to the DVI, private containers (31.6 per cent) and deposit containers from restaurants (24 per cent) came in second and third.

This means consumers are ultimately voting in favour of single-use plastic products, as these are even more environmentally friendly than the paper alternatives. The ecological compatibility of plastic packaging has been proven by scientific studies published world-wide in recent years (cf. In these studies, experts dispel the misperception of plastic packaging from an environmental point of view – especially regarding energy consumption, global warming and, last but not least, the costs to society. In this respect, too, plastic packaging is clearly superior to paper packaging solutions, which are sometimes preferred from an ideological point of view – and not only in terms of preserving the freshness of food.

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