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Belgian researchers find single-use dry food packs “more sustainable” than reuse alternatives

#Belgian researchers find single-use dry food packs “more sustainable” than reuse alternatives

27 Mar 2024 — The environmental impact of reusable packaging is higher than the environmental impact of single-use packaging, finds new research by the University of Ghent, Belgium. However, according to circularity indicators established by the researchers, reusable packaging is preferred over single-use applications.

In the study, the researchers compare the environmental impact of a reusable plastic rice packaging design to a conventional single-use plastic rice packaging.

On average, the reusable rice packaging could be reused five times due to losses at the distribution, use and reuse preparation phase.

The researchers find that while the reusable packaging scores better on the circularity indicators, its global warming and fossil resource depletion impact are respectively two and three times higher, considering a functional unit of 1 kg of cooked rice to be consumed.

The sensitivity analysis identified the reusability and return rate, providing the retention of reusable packaging at the reuse preparation and use phase, respectively, as the most decisive parameters.

If these parameters could be optimized to a value of 99.75 %, corresponding to 16 uses, the climate change impact of reusable packaging would be lower than its conventional single-use counterpart.

Food waste reduction is key
High food-to-packaging ratios (more than 18 for all impact categories) highlight the importance of reducing food waste.

If the packaging design could reduce food losses in the product system by 0.2 %, the reusable packaged rice would have a lower water use and mineral and metal resource use impact compared to the single-use packaged rice, despite the higher environmental impact of the reusable packaging unit itself, stress the scientists.

Therefore, this design should be prioritized when further optimizing the reusable packaging design.

Even if the packaging unit is reusable, the alternative design can still cause a high environmental impact. To assess the environmental impact of a product, a LCA can be used. A review study by WRAP in 2010 identified the key factors for an environmentally friendly design of reusable packaging based on existing LCA studies.

The identified primary factors were a low environmental impact of the production stage, a high amount of reuse cycles, low transportation distances, a high volume of reusable packaging units, optimal vehicle utilization and a high amount of recycled content in the reusable packaging units.

In addition, the researchers found that product damage, although it can have a large influence on the results, was not taken into account by the reviewed LCA studies. The scientists stress that important aspects related to the sustainability of packaging, such as its circularity and packaging-related food losses and waste are not well-covered by standard LCA practices.

Pack guideline optimization
To combine circularity, environmental impact and the impact on food preservation and losses in one assessment, guidelines for an extended food packaging LCA were proposed.

The study aims to assess the environmental sustainability of a business-to-consumer reuse setting, in which an experimentally designed reusable dry food plastic packaging is compared with conventional single-use rice packaging as currently found in supermarkets.

The specific objective of the study is to provide recommendations on which further optimizations in the life cycle of a newly designed reusable dry food plastic packaging unit should be prioritized to minimize its environmental impact.

Three aspects are included in the study: circularity, the environmental impact and packaging-related food losses and waste. The study presents the following novelties:

  • A comparison of reusable and single-use plastic dry food packaging in a business-to-consumer setting.
  • A circularity analysis of reusable versus single-use dry food packaging.
  • An application of the extended LCA to a reusable dry food plastic packaging.
  • Recommendations for product developers for a new design of reusable plastic rice packaging.

The research was published in Science Direct.

Edited by Natalie Schwertheim

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