The first one is strong and can be used dozens of times. But even this does not give it an advantage over corrugated cardboard. Results of the FEFCO study ‘Recycling vs Reuse for Packaging’
“The Recyclable vs Reusable Packaging Project was prompted by the packaging legislation review and the need to advocate for corrugated packaging,” comments Outi Marin (SKG), Chair of Sustainability & Circularity workgroup at FEFCO.
“The preliminary results show that fit-for-purpose corrugated packaging has a strong position in delivering the EU Green Deal and we can proudly promote it.”
Recyclable corrugated packaging outperforms reusable packaging overall on environmental indicators. Corrugated board is better in most of the impact categories in the baseline scenario. The most important being the climate change.
Here is a short review of results from the studies commissioned by FEFCO conducted in 2022 by the independent consultancy Ramboll, and research institute VTT.
The peer reviewed LCA (Life-Cycle Assessment) study compared the environmental impacts of packaging solutions in the food segment representing recyclable and reusable packaging. It compared business-to-business (B2B) transport of fresh food within the EU using two packaging solutions: corrugated boxes and reusable plastic crates.
The study was conducted according to ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 standards and peer reviewed by a dedicated panel of three independent peer-reviewers. It evaluated a basic scenario for 15 Environmental Footprint impact categories. Data was collected from both primary sources and secondary ones, including literature.
The study includes extensive assessment of 14 different scenario (called sensitivity analysis), increasing its credibility. The functional unit used for this study was 1 tonne of fresh produce (vegetables) over a transport distance of 840 km from producer to retailer within the EU-27 (+UK), allowing the study to be representative of average food transport systems in the EU.
A baseline scenario (a representative case study used as an average scenario to identify parameters, data and potential implications on B2B transportation in Europe) was used in the study.
This scenario used Eurostat data for end-of-life (paper & board: 83% recycling / 17 % incineration with energy recovery; plastic: 42% recycling / 58% incineration with energy recovery). The aggregated total impacts of the baseline systems were calculated for both packaging solutions.
The study showed that recyclable corrugated board was more beneficial in 10 out of 15 impact categories, including climate change, resource use – fossils, water use, and other factors.
In order to outperform corrugated packaging, reusable plastic crates would need to be reused more than 60 times, which is unlikely under normal conditions.
In addition, corrugated cardboard shows better results for climate change in 13 out of 14 different scenarios, among them lower breakage rate, different recycling rate and others.
The study results demonstrate that both recyclable and reusable packaging play a valuable role in the Ciruclar Economy. They also provide evidence that there could be unintentional consequences should the EU prioritise scaling up reuse at the cost of recycling.
To be truly sustainable, products need to be evaluated across their life cycle, starting with a sustainable source. Corrugated packaging comes from a renewable resource – sustainably managed forests; it is 100% recyclable and recycled in reality; and it is biodegradable – sustainability is embedded in the product already.
The efficiencies provided through the paper & board recycling value chain could be compromised if policy change disrupted this well-functioning system. A sustainable and circular value chain for packaging in Europe that delivers on the EU Green Deal ambitions requires both recycling and reuse, working in parallel, with a fit for purpose approach.
EU policies should incentivise sustainable packaging solutions that truly contribute to the green transition.