The environmental benefits of renewable, fiber-based food packaging confirmed by a recent LCA study

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Published 12 January 2021
A comparative Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) shows that fiber-based single-use packaging used in quick service restaurants has better environmental performance than fossil-based reusable containers in the same use. As such, the renewable single-use packaging is not only food safe and hygienic, it is also more environmentally friendly.

The study conducted by Ramboll and released by the European Paper Packaging Association (EPPA) confirms clearly lower environmental impacts for single-use system e.g. in the categories of climate change, fossil depletion and freshwater use. The reuse system generated 177% more CO2 emissions than paper-based single-use system, created 238% more of fossil depletion and consumed 267% more freshwater compared to the single-use system. The main contributor to the higher impacts of the reuse system is the energy and water used when washing the dishes.
In total, the comparative LCA assessment includes 10 different single-use product items such as cups, wraps and salad bowls made of paperboard and 14 different reuse products either made from polypropylene plastic (PP) or a combination of PP and ceramic, glass and steel, assumed to be used for 100 times. The single-use system proved more environmentally friendly in several categories: climate change, fine particle formation, fossil depletion, freshwater consumption and terrestrial acidification. The study has a European scope; European and UK averages are used for key processes such as the electricity mix and pulp production.

What do the findings mean in practice?

The recent LCA study challenges the general assumption of reuse being more environmentally beneficial than single-use. The EU Waste Framework Directive sets out five steps for dealing with waste and the model assumes that reuse should be preferred over recycling.

On the other hand, the EU expects the Member States to encourage the options that deliver the best overall environmental outcome. In the light of this guidance and with evidence from the recent LCA, the use of single-use food packaging in quick service restaurants is the better option.

LCA is the widely acknowledged way to assess the environmental impact of packaging when moving towards the carbon neutrality goal of Green Deal in 2050. The study is an example showcasing the need for a detailed case-by-case analysis of the most suitable and less environmentally burdening solution per different use cases.

It also gives even more reason to develop the renewable, fiber-based single-use packaging and its recycling systems further. The fiber-based single-use system in Europe is using sustainably sourced renewable raw materials and is characterized by large, industrialized operators who have continuous environmental systems and development roadmaps in place, allowing for a coordinated approach.

What is an LCA and how was the study verified?

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study involves a thorough inventory of the energy and materials that are required across the life cycle of a product and calculates the corresponding emissions to the environment.

The EPPA study used primary data for single-use products and restaurant functioning as well as raw material providers and converting. It is ISO 14040 and 14 044 compliant and was carried out by the Danish consultancy Ramboll with extensive experience on LCA. The study has been critically reviewed by a German third-party reviewer; TüV Rheinland.

The study was commissioned by the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA) a not-for-profit food and foodservice packaging association. The Alliance brings together the leading companies in the fiber-based food and foodservice sector from across Europe.

Do you want to read more about the study, please visit the website of EPPA.

Part of the bioeconomy, Stora Enso is a leading global provider of renewable solutions in packaging, biomaterials, wooden construction and paper. We employ some 23 000 people and have sales in more than 50 countries and our shares are listed on the Helsinki (STEAV, STERV) and Stockholm (STE A, STE R) stock exchanges.

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