Returnable plastic packaging solutions can boost the circular economy

© Vladimir -

Fraunhofer study reveals lack of clear political guidelines

The adage that reusable is better than single-use also applies to plastic packaging in nearly every respect. This has been underlined by a recent study of plastic-based reusable systems in the circular economy conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (UMSICHT) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) on behalf of the Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg (SIM), a foundation that promotes the use of reusable beverage packaging. The researchers compared three plastic-based reusable packaging systems with their single-use alternatives. They found that reusable beats single-use in 14 of the 17 categories examined and offers enormous potential when it comes to establishing a successful circular economy. However, the scientists criticise the absence of clear political framework conditions and a lack of implementation of the existing waste hierarchy, which actually prioritises reusables.

The Fraunhofer Institutes base their findings not least on these systemic shortcomings. They emphasise that the so-called waste hierarchy plays a special role in European and German waste legislation. It defines the order of priority where the generation and handling of waste is concerned. However, in the opinion of the scientists, such a structure only makes sense if the practices covered by a particular level of the hierarchy offer benefits when compared with the practices of the lower levels. The Fraunhofer institutes conclude that in this respect the waste hierarchy prioritises options that are probably more sensible over those that are less so. 

From the perspective of the German Closed Substance Cycle Waste Management Act and the European Waste Framework Directive, the multiple use of packaging is an important strategy for waste prevention and is therefore ranked as the top level of the waste hierarchy. Recycling is subordinate to it and only ranks as being on the third level. According to the researchers, this is also understandable because packaging that has been used several times can be recycled at the end of its life, while the reverse is not the case.

Primacy of multiple use

And this is where their criticism comes in. The authors of the study find fault with the fact that although multiple use should actually be accorded primacy, it is at best mentioned as an alternative in subordinate regulations and directives, right up to standards and eco-labels. Furthermore, this alternative is often limited to certain areas of application. The Fraunhofer researchers believe that where the regulatory requirements have been taken into consideration, for example in quotas, the regulatory requirements have not yet been adequately implemented.

For the study, they analysed three important reusable systems in the form of three applications: fruit and vegetable trays, which have already become established in the retail trade, plant trays and coffee-to-go cups. The trays are currently being prepared for large-scale use, while the coffee-to-go cups are at the introductory stage. The reusable systems were compared with the respective single-use solutions in three areas: circularity, performance and sustainability, with a total of 17 sub-categories. The results showed that reusable systems offer clear benefits for all three demonstrators examined — from material efficiency and lower plastic emissions through to better product protection thanks to the use of more robust designs.

Downcycling dominates

To illustrate the importance of having a clear political framework and implementing the existing waste hierarchy that prioritises reusable materials, the Fraunhofer Institutes point out that only 13 per cent of the plastics produced in Germany are made from recyclates, and the figure is as low as 11 per cent in the packaging sector. Furthermore, only a very small proportion is reused for its original purpose. Cascade uses in the form of downcycling usually dominate. The researchers also note that Germany is one of the largest exporters of plastic waste worldwide. The EU and the German government have responded to this problem by banning the production of certain single-use plastic products and have imposed a quota for the recyclate content of PET beverage bottles. In addition, the mandatory deposit on single-use beverage bottles in Germany was extended to cover all types of beverages at the beginning of 2022. 

The scientists are of the opinion that the EU Commission’s Green Deal concept for achieving climate neutrality within the union and the EU’s so-called Taxonomy Regulation, which defines criteria for ecologically sustainable economic activity, are fundamentally a step in the right direction. As the project leader of the study, Jürgen Bertling from UMSICHT explains, the authors also criticise the fact that so far the waste hierarchy, which has been regulated in European waste law for decades, and according to which recycling should be downstream of multiple use, has hardly been implemented.

Incentives for multiple use

Based on their study, the authors have derived two central measures and they recommend politicians, associations, manufacturers of plastic packaging and suppliers of reusable pool solutions should adopt these in equal measure. Firstly, they suggest that ways to rigorously implement the waste hierarchy should be promoted and that single-use systems should only come into play once the possibilities for multiple use have been exhausted. Jürgen Bertling notes emphatically, “This result of the study contrasts with the reality in today’s packaging market.” There is therefore a need, he says, for new political framework conditions that impose a penalty on circumvention of the hierarchy. “At the same time, incentive systems should be created for companies to increasingly establish reusable solutions for plastics,” he adds. He also calls for a review of the waste hierarchy by a panel of experts and its subsequent strict implementation in practice. The authors of the study also believe it would make more sense to set demanding recycled material quotas for production rather than looking at recycling rates.

The second central measure that the researchers consider necessary is to exploit the existing optimisation potential for reusable solutions so that their benefits are expanded further, and possible deficits are eliminated. The co-author of the study, Kerstin Dobers from IML, predicts that “many innovations are certainly still possible in the field of reusable solutions, especially in online retailing or in the take-away sector.” For her, good solutions are characterised by the fact that the packaging is modular and its volume can be reduced. Here, the researcher calls for framework conditions for national and international standardisation to exploit the ecological potential of reusable systems. In addition, she advocates clear labelling to identify reusable and single-use packaging. The authors of the study believe that associations in particular have a role to play here.

Go back