Scientific study breaks stereotypes on reusable packaging

15 June 2022

It is now scientifically proven that reuse should be considered on a case-by-case basis as it is not always the best environmental option. A peer-reviewed study shows that reusable packaging has a bigger impact on climate than recyclable corrugated cardboard.

Legislation rightly places a strong emphasis on the role of packaging in the circular economy and the requirement that it can be recycled and/or reused.  However, packaging exists for a reason and it is vital to consider packaging functionality, sustainability, and overall performance from a life-cycle perspective.

The three studies released by the European Trade Association, FEFCO, were conducted by an independent consultancy (Ramboll) and a research institute (VTT). The studies evaluate the impact of recyclable corrugated board packaging compared to reusable plastic packaging and revealed a series of important conclusions. 

The peer-reviewed comparative life-cycle assessment compares the environmental impact of corrugated cardboard boxes and plastic crates when transporting produce over average distances in Europe. Key findings, extracted by FEFCO, show that:

  • The corrugated board system is more beneficial in 10 out of 15 impact categories, including climate change, total resource use including fossils, mineral and metals.
  • The break-even analysis shows that plastic crates would need to reach a minimum of 63 rotations to outperform corrugated boxes in the climate change impact category. According to the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), the average reuse rate of plastic reusable crates is 24 rotations which is below the break-even point.

The hot spot analysis of the e-commerce logistic chain evaluates recyclable corrugated versus reusable plastic solutions. The study identified 51 hot spots, or stages in the life cycle, which account for a significant proportion of the environmental impact of the packaging within the supply chain. The top 3 hot spots, summarised by FEFCO are:

  • Real number of uses for multiple use solutions is the most important parameter, as official  data does not exist, and available data is not always transparent.
  • Logistics parameters (e.g. storage, transport distances, loading capacity, sorting) are ranked second, indicating that transport distances have a major impact notably on emissions and will continue to influence the life cycle of the product.
  • Percentage of recycled material used in production is another key point as the data for recycled content of reusable packaging is limited. On the contrary, it is well-established that corrugated cardboard packaging contains very high levels of recycled content.

The white paper, prepared by research institute, VTT, provides a critical view on packaging recycling and reuse in the European Circular Economy. The study conclusions, summarised by FEFCO, are as follows:

  • The concept of ‘fit for purpose’ packaging should be central in legislative decision making at all stages, as it contributes to achieving circularity and climate neutrality while reducing waste.
  • Both recyclable corrugated and reusable packaging solutions can provide appropriate solutions depending on the packaging requirements and should be considered by regulators when proposing legislation.
  • The waste hierarchy should be improved based on life cycle thinking, as reusable packaging is not always the most sustainable solution.
  • Environmental impacts may simply shift, not disappear, as a result of scaling up reuse systems.
  • There is no obvious best choice when selecting between recyclable and reusable packaging solutions as results vary significantly on a case-by-case basis. This demonstrates a clear need to avoid one-size-fits-all policy and rather focus on fit-for-purpose solutions.
  • The shift to reusable systems involves substantial initial economic investments thus creating new costs related to washing, repair etc. while burdening the environment, with no guarantee of success.

Andy Barnetson, Director of Packaging Affairs at the Confederation of Paper Industries, said “Based on this scientific evidence, it is clear that a preference for reusable over recyclable packaging is a narrow-minded approach. A well-functioning circular economy requires efficient and effective packaging in a system where both reuse and recycled packaging have their role to play.

“However, a robust understanding of their impacts is needed. Therefore, policies must encourage sustainable packaging solutions that truly contribute to waste prevention. Using sound scientific techniques, such as these lifecycle assessments will prevent unintended consequences for our environment while allowing business to innovate and meet their commitments.”


Contact for further information
Holly Whitbread | [email protected] | 01793 889612

Notes to Editors
CPI is the leading trade association representing the UK’s Paper-based Industries, comprising paper and board manufacturers and converters, corrugated packaging producers, makers of soft tissue papers, and collectors of paper for recycling.

CPI represents an industry with an aggregate annual turnover of £12 billion, with 56,000 direct and a further 93,000 indirect employees.

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