Eric Le Lay
President, European Paper Packaging Alliance
Instinctively, reusing tableware would seem better for the environment, in particular helping to reduce our use of carbon. However, this is often not the case as new scientific data has revealed.
Food packaging is essential to modern food systems. It was confirmed by the response of governments and by the European Environment Agency which recently highlighted how disposable packaging has “played an important role in preventing the spread of COVID-19.”
But in recent years questions have rightly been asked about which types of packaging are the most sustainable in different scenarios.
The study found that reusable systems generated 2.8 times as many CO2e emissions as the single-use paper-based items used for dine-in meals over the course of a year – harming our goal to achieve net zero.
Impact of tableware
In response, the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA) commissioned Ramboll, a leading Danish environmental consultancy, to conduct a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) assessing the use of different types of tableware within quick service restaurants (QSRs).
The results were astonishing from a climate and water use perspective. Contrary to commonly held assumptions, replacing single-use with reusable tableware for in-store use in Europe would create pollution equivalent to over a million cars a year and uses freshwater equivalent to a city of over 750,000 people.
Using real-life data, the study looked at the packaging needed by QSRs in the EU and UK to serve their dine-in customers over the course of a year. The study then compared a range of recyclable and renewable single use paper-based packaging items with their reusable alternatives – polypropylene and traditional tableware, which are non-renewable and non-recyclable.
Ramboll was able to use up-to-date data in its assessment, which examined the entire value chain from the production of the packaging through to consumer use, washing and recycling options. The comprehensive nature of the assessment is important as reusable packaging requires industrial washing systems that consume energy, water and detergents – unlike single-use paper-based products.
The LCA, which was conducted to ISO standards and independently certified by TUV Germany, found that in six out of nine categories, including climate change and freshwater usage, single-use paper products performed considerably better than reusable tableware.
The differences for climate change impacts between the paper-based and reusable tableware were significant. The study found that reusable systems generated 2.8 times as many CO2e emissions as the single-use paper-based items used for dine-in meals over the course of a year – harming our goal to achieve net zero. This is because the use phase, driven by washing and drying, accounted for 83% of the total aggregated impact of reusable tableware.
By ensuring we fully understand how and where impacts occur within our food system is the surest way to choosing the safest, most appropriate packaging solutions and achieving the best environmental outcomes in line with both the EU’s and UK’s commitments.