Returnable packaging needs scale to lower emissions, Ellen MacArthur Foundation report suggests

The report focuses on the environmental benefits of returnable packaging compared to single-use packaging. It was developed with input by national governments, organisations such as the European Investment Bank, and companies such as Nestlé, PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company.

Sources of emissions

One of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions from plastic packaging, either reusable or single-use, is the production process. The reason reusable and returnable packaging as a sector is usually linked to fewer emissions is the fact that these emissions are, in a sense, ‘spread out’ through its many uses, whereas as single-use packaging is only used once, each time connected to the emissions of a whole production process.

The report presented several scenarios, each comprising of different scales of use for returnable packaging, and ascertained whether GHG emissions related to returnable packaging would be fewer than with single-use packaging. In most instances, the reusable packaging was linked to fewer emissions than the single-use.

However, in the case of its use for food cupboard products at a ‘fragmented’ scale – where the return network is moderate and so returns are lower, packaging isn’t standardised and pooled, and reusable packaging has less than 2% of the market share – the reusable packaging was slightly higher in GHG emissions.

Because returnable packaging for food cupboards is five times the weight of ‘flexible’ single-use packaging, unlike other kinds of returnable packaging which are only twice the weight of single-use, far more packaging is created for each individual item of returnable packaging and it is therefore linked to more emissions. Because in the ‘fragmented’ scenario, returns are lower, more reusable packaging is made and therefore more GHGs are emitted.