Methodological Disparity Between the Single-use and Reusable Packaging Systems

  • 21/03/2024
  • 1 min reading time
LCA Single-use & Reusable Packaging
Photo: Pexels Norman Mortenson) & Wikimedia Commons (various users). Edit: ESCI-UPF

Our researchers, Alba Bala and Ilija Sazdovski, in collaboration with Dario Cottafava from the University of Turin, Gaia Brussa, Giulia Cavenago, Lucia Rigamonti from the Politecnico di Milano, Daniele Cespi from the University of Bologna, Joana Beigbeder from Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour, and Paul Refalo from the University of Malta, published a scientific research paper emphasizing the critical importance of rigorously applying methodology when comparing two different systems (single-use and reusable) using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

This viewpoint research follows the publication of an open letter addressed to the European Parliament, urging Members of Parliament currently deliberating on the European Union Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to exercise caution in interpreting the results of certain Environmental Impact Assessments.

The research emphasizes the methodological disparity between the LCA of single-use and reusable systems. In the case of single-use systems, the focus tends to be more straightforward, concentrating on the entire life cycle of the disposable product, from raw material extraction to disposal. Reusable systems, on the other hand, necessitate a broader scope that encompasses multiple product life cycles, including transportation, cleaning, and maintenance phases.

In the framework of the Circular Economy, particularly important assumptions for reusable and single-use packaging include the number of reuses, weight, sanitising method, transport logistics, and any other aspect which may influence the use phase. In addition, these variables are not fixed over time and may be affected by future changes in product design, consumers’ habits, or supply chain management. As a consequence, the impact of different packaging options is not immutable and could change. Therefore, while comparing reusable versus single-use packaging, there is an urgent need to clarify and integrate the methodological requirements necessary to guarantee the reliability of studies and allow for impartial comparability of results.

The authors analyze four recent LCA studies developed by the private sector comparing single-use vs reusable packaging where these methodological requirements are only partially satisfied.

For these reasons, until new rules are introduced into the Product Category Rules, the authors advise that future comparative studies between reusable and single-use products must fulfil the recommended requirements from the research. Thus, they conclude that any report that assesses the environmental impacts without respecting the characteristics listed above lacks robustness, reliability and impartiality, and would potentially mislead decision-makers. Therefore, caution should be exercised when considering the results and recommendations emanating from such reports or studies.

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