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Environmental impact

Reusable packaging has a positive environmental impact

RePack is a packaging with a positive impact

When RePack was just a concept, we carefully analysed the carbon footprint of reusable packaging and compared it to single-use packaging for a simple reason; the planet already has enough crap products, and we did not want to add to it.

Our conclusion back then was that reusing products positively impacts the environment by reducing CO2 emissions by up to 80% compared to single-use packaging and eliminates waste. This finding motivated us to build a product and a company around this idea.

But you would expect us to say that anyway. So, we won’t show those results but something objective.

Why reuse makes sense

Waste Hierarchy – Our guiding principle

Waste Hierarchy

Let’s start with the easy one first.

Returning to reuse eliminates waste—no question about it.

The waste hierarchy is a concept that prioritises waste management practices based on their environmental impact. The hierarchy typically consists of the following levels, arranged in order of preference.

  • Prevention: Reducing or avoiding the generation of waste in the first place.
  • Reuse: Using products or materials multiple times for their intended purpose without significant alterations.
  • Recycling: Processing waste materials to create new products.
  • Recovery: Extracting useful materials or energy from waste through processes like incineration.
  • Disposal: Safely disposing of waste that cannot be prevented, reused, recycled, or recovered.

Reuse comes before recycling and for a logical reason.

Making durable and reusable products reduces the amount of waste.

Secondly, reuse saves resources and removes the need to go through polluting waste management processes, like landfilling, energy recovery or recycling.

Comparing the carbon footprint of reusable and single-use packaging

The comparative carbon footprint results are from a Fast-Track life-cycle analysis (LCA) by Fashion For Good, a global initiative to inspire change and drive the collective movement to make fashion a force for good.

Fashion For Good works directly with the fashion industry to innovate better solutions for people and the planet. The Rise of Reusable Packaging - understanding the impact and mapping the scale is their research into the impact of reusable packaging, done in collaboration with e-commerce giants Otto and Zalando.

The LCA study  compared the carbon footprint for four types of packaging in three different systems:

  1. Single-use system for cardboard boxes
  2. Single-use system for polybags
  3. Centralised Reuse system
  4. Decentralised Reuse System

Single-use systems

The linear economy, also known as the take-make-waste economy, or single-use system, is a system where resources are extracted to create products that eventually become waste and are thrown away.

In a linear economy, products and materials are not fully utilised and always move in one direction: from raw material to waste.

For e-commerce packaging, the linear system looks like this.

Sing use packaging system in e-commerce

Reusable packaging system looks different, and there’s not just one, but two possible systems.

RePack started with what can be called a centralised system, meaning empty packaging is returned to a centralised return hub, where packaging is checked, cleaned and put back into circulation. Packaging is often shared between retailers in this model, making the reuse model more efficient.

Centralised reuse system in e-commerce packaging

An alternative system is a decentralised system, where empty packaging is returned directly to the source, checked, cleaned, and returned to circulation.

This can also be called a closed-loop system.

In this model, the return distance is minimised, and packaging is more straightforward to customise as it’s only used by one brand.

De-centralised reuse system in e-commerce packaging

What type of packaging is compared?

The recycled content in the single-use packaging example was set at 30% in the Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) mailer.

Despite no publicly available data on the average recycled content used in e-commerce packaging,  many retailers claim to use recycled plastics, so a 30% recycled content in all plastic packaging was selected.

40mm thick cardboard made from 89% recycled materials was used for cardboard. This aligns with the European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers’ (FEFCO) discovery that the average recycled content of corrugated cardboard as of 2017.

In both contexts, a ‘small’ package was used - a package of 3 t-shirts packed with no excess space, optimising the package size.

In the reusable context, 70% recycled polypropylene (PP) was used as the material composition for the packaging.

In the centralised model, the cleaning node was set at a distance of 1500km, accounting for a distance across multiple European countries - or approximately one-third of the USA. In this model, package manufacturing occurred in China; therefore, transportation emissions from that point to the distribution centre were included. In the base case, a 5% non-return rate was used. A 5% non-return rate would suggest that, across a cycle of 1000 packages, 950 packages would be returned. Return rates can vary significantly between different reusable packaging systems and use cases, but 5% is an ambitious and aspirational target

In setting the base for reusable packaging, a hypothetical number of cycles had to be chosen to represent the ‘life’ of reusable packaging. 30 cycles were selected as an appropriate base case for reusable packaging because of the CO2 eq savings compared with a single-use plastic mailer plateau after 30 cycles, as seen in the figure below.

Carbon footprint savings of reuse system in e-commerce

Methodology: Fast-Track Life Cycle Assessment

The study used the 'Fast-Track' Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology developed by the Technical University of Delft to compare the environmental impact of single-use and reusable packaging systems.  This methodology was chosen because it allows for the comparative analysis of different systems.

It's important to note that a reusable packaging system doesn't involve any material innovation, as it uses known materials with existing impacts. Therefore, conducting a full LCA  with a comprehensive production audit wasn't necessary. In other words, the Fast-Track LCA focuses on what impact to calculate rather than how to calculate the impact.

The system boundaries for the Fast-Track LCA comparison are based on a Cradle-to-Grave system.

The functional unit for this study was 1000 e-commerce deliveries, with the appropriate sizing to cover a small e-commerce order (3 t-shirts packed efficiently).

The carbon footprint of reusable packaging and single-use packaging

Impact hotspots

You want to know if reusable packaging can reduce emissions, don’t you?

Both reusable models have a significantly lower carbon footprint than the single-use option.

The centralised model has the lowest carbon footprint.

In a centralised system, reusable packaging has a 57 % smaller carbon footprint per cycle than a virgin LDPE mailer and 39 % smaller than a recycled LDPE mailer.

Reuse performs even better in a decentralised system like the one RePack has with Decathlon for example.

In a decentralised system, reusable packaging has an 82 % smaller carbon footprint per cycle than a virgin LDPE mailer and 72% less than a recycled LDPE mailer.

Carbon footprint comparison reusable and single-use packaging systems

In all scenarios, less plastic waste (by weight) is generated when using reusable mailers rather than single-use plastic mailers, regardless of the recycled content of plastic packaging.

Where do carbon emissions come for reusable and single-use packaging?

In reusable models, a significant proportion of the emissions is generated during the transportation phase.

This is because the same package is transported to and from customers over multiple cycles in reusable systems, which divides the raw materials and processing phase over many cycles.

Another important aspect is the amount of emissions per cycle attributable to cardboard versus the LDPE mailer. The LDPE mailer has a quarter of the carbon emissions compared to cardboard (54kg vs 210kg, respectively).

The weight of cardboard is over ten times that of an LDPE mailer, which generates more significant carbon emissions during the raw materials and processing phase. Furthermore, the additional weight has significant implications for the transportation phase. Cardboard generates over thirty times more carbon emissions than the LDPE mailer during this phase per cycle. This also means that its environmental performance worsens as the cardboard packaging gets bigger.

While cardboard generates more carbon emissions than other materials, evaluating environmental impact is complex.

LDPE mailers are non-renewable and hazardous to the environment, especially at the end-of-life stage. Plastic packaging generally has lower recycling rates than paper and cardboard.

What is the impact of the return rate and empty return distance?

A sensitivity analysis was conducted to determine the impact of return distance and return rate.

When comparing reusable packaging with cardboard packaging with 89% recycled content, it becomes evident that reusable packaging reduces carbon emissions per cycle by 64% to 88%.

Even if non-return rates of 40% and travel distances of over 2000 km from the distribution centre to the consumer are factored in, reusable packaging still reduces carbon emissions by over 60%.

This is because the weight of cardboard makes the transportation phase a significant source of emissions. Hence, despite the emissions associated with the return transport phase in the reusable packaging context, the CO2 equivalent emissions from cardboard packaging remain significantly higher.

How return rate and distance impact reusable packaging sustainability

Want more?

Download the full study The Rise of Reusable Packaging: Understading the Impact & Mapping a Path to Scale

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