Single-use paper packaging vs. reusable packaging and its impact on the environment

According to the most common definition Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a process that aims to evaluate the effects that a product has on the environment the whole life time, by increasing the efficient use of resources and reducing the burden on the environment. Environmental assessment can be conducted for both the product and its functions. LCA is considered a “cradle-to-grave analysis,” and its basic elements are to identify and quantify the burdens introduced into the environment, (i.e., materials and energy consumed and emissions and waste introduced into the environment), assess the potential impacts of these burdens, and evaluate the options available to reduce the burdens. LCA studies can be useful for process or product design, benchmarking, setting standards, planning development strategies or shaping product policy.

Using this research method, some time ago, comparative studies were conducted for single-use paper dishes and equivalent reusable plastic, ceramic, glass and metal dishes used in quick-service restaurants. The study was conducted in accordance with ISO 14040 and 14044, and the research shows that the use of single-use products has significant environmental benefits over reusable products. This is particularly noticeable in the area of reducing carbon emissions and water consumption.

The two types of products (single-use and reusable) were compared with each other taking into account climate change, water consumption, fossil fuel depletion, fine pollution/dust generation, soil acidification, ozone depletion, metal depletion, ionizing radiation and water eutrophication. The study found that polypropylene-based reusable products generate more than 2.5 times more CO2 emissions and use 3.6 times more water than single-use paper products. The rationale behind this situation is that reusable tableware requires the expenditure of significant amounts of energy and water for washing, sanitizing and drying processes.

If we consider different materials and different value chains, sustainability requires a comprehensive and open approach. Policymakers and industry leaders need to make decisions based on scientific insights, not on beliefs and assumptions. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but the study mentioned above clearly shows that some sustainable single-use products made of paper are actually better for the environment than reusable plastic ones. The industry hopes that this study will help the European Commission prepare evidence-based policy criteria for the ongoing legislative work on the draft packaging and packaging waste regulation PPWR.

The European Union should help create new markets for bio-based products such as paper and paperboard packaging, and ensure that there is a continuous supply of sustainably sourced raw materials such as high-quality recycled paper and fresh fiber to market recyclable paper products. More on this topic can be found in the Cepi 2030 Industry Manifesto, which takes into account the new targets adopted under the EU Green Deal (the content of the 2030 Manifesto is available on CEPI’s pages).

Fiber-based packaging is already the most collected and recycled packaging material in Europe. However, the industry wants to get even better and is working to increase the recycling rate of fiber packaging to 90% by 2030 (as part of the 4-evergreen alliance).

How to contact us?

Stowarzyszenie Papierników Polskich
The Association of Polish Papermakers

Main office
Pl. Komuny Paryskiej 5A, 90-007 Łódź

Tel.: (+48 42) 630 01 17
Tel.: (+48 42) 203 24 25

SPP Warsaw Office
Al. Solidarności 117, lok. 408 
00-140 Warszawa

Tel: (+48 22) 440 56 34
Mobile: (+48) 668 12 90 39

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