Re-usable Packaging – better or worse for CO2 levels?

This post is a summary of a very detailed McKinsey article entitled The potential impact of reusable packaging., written by Felix Gruenewald, Jon Haag, Franziska Hornyai, Oskar Lingqvist, and Daniel Nordigården.

The primary objective of the McKinsey article is to contribute to the ongoing discourse on packaging choices and sustainability. To achieve this, the authors employ scenario modelling to compare the environmental and economic impacts of reusable packaging against single-use alternatives in two distinct use-case scenarios within the European context.

Renewed Interest in Re-usable Packaging due to the Climate Crisis

The article delves into the historical context of reusable packaging, noting that re-usability systems have been employed for commodities like milk and wine over the past century. It emphasizes that the resurgence of interest in reusable packaging is a response to the ambitious climate targets set globally, prompting industries to seek ways to reduce their carbon emissions.

Challenges in Scaling Reusable Packaging

The article highlights that many trials of reusable packaging systems in their pilot phases face difficulties when attempting to transition to larger-scale implementations. These difficulties include initial lack of acceptance of reusable packaging to issues surrounding infrastructure, regulatory pressures for reduced packaging, ensuring product safety, and managing costs.

Scenario modelling to compare the environmental and economic impacts of Re-usable versus Single-Use Packaging

  • E-commerce packaging within Germany – Scenario

In the first scenario, the analysis focuses on e-commerce packaging within Germany. The authors explore the transition from single-use paper-based packaging to reusable plastic packaging made from polypropylene (PP). Conclusion: They emphasize that the modelling shows a competitive environmental advantage for reusable packaging after approximately 20 rotations, indicating that re-usability becomes more environmentally viable after multiple uses. However, the modelling also underscores the challenges associated with increased transportation and CO2 emissions due to the need to return the packaging to collection points for redistribution, thus affecting the overall costs and environmental impact of the reusability model.

  • Takeaway food service packaging in Belgium – Scenario

The second scenario centres on takeaway food service packaging in Belgium. This involves the concept of providing consumers with food or drinks packaged in reusable containers or cups, which can be returned to designated collection points for cleaning and redistribution. Conclusion: The analysis suggests that re-usability might double the cost per use compared to single-use packaging, so it might not yet be a more environmentally or economically effective solution. The authors attribute this outcome to higher emissions resulting from the increased proportion of fossil components in materials, transport, and energy use.

Throughout the article, the authors stress that successful implementation of re-usability models hinges on various factors, including the number of use rotations required before the benefits are realized. They also highlight the significance of considering the average travel distance of reusable packaging, achievable recycling rates, and the necessary adaptations to existing operating modes within various sectors.

Overall Conclusion: The article concludes that this is a complex issue; therefore there is a need for comprehensive research and strategic decision-making to ensure both environmental and economic viability of re-usable packaging.

 You can read the full article here