Report raises concerns of bias in single-use vs reusable packaging research

A recent report published by Reloop and Zero Waste Europe has shed light on potential biases and transparency issues in heavily cited studies favouring single-use take-away options over reusable packaging.

Reusable packagingThe report, titled "Unveiling the Complexities: Exploring LCAs of Reusable Packaging in the Take-Away Sector," focuses on three Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) from the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA), McDonald's, and the University of Michigan.

Conducted by circular economy specialists at Eunomia Research & Consulting, the report questions whether industry-funded studies are fully exploring the value of moving to reusable packaging options and calls for greater transparency within future research.

According to the report, the EPPA study leans significantly on assumptions with limited evidential support, leading to conclusions that favour single-use options. These conclusions are criticised for focusing solely on current conditions within the linear economic model of take-make-waste, rather than exploring the potential of a more circular economy in the future.

The EPPA report contends that single-use options are unlikely to be outperformed by reuse ones, but this conclusion is based on a comparison to a reuse system that is suboptimal.

Rather than relying on fixed assumptions, the report claims it is crucial to grasp the 'breakeven points' between reuse and single-use systems to determine the threshold of performance for the optimal choice. Discussion should centre around identifying the efficiency levels required for reuse systems to surpass the current standards, rather than assuming inadequacy.

The report also finds that the McDonald’s report is lacking in its discussion of its methodology, data and assumptions – limiting the ability to meaningfully analyse its findings.

Where assumptions are outlined, they appear unambitious. As an illustration, the assumed 70 per cent return rate in the study is notably below the EU's Single Use Plastics Directive's obligatory 90 per cent separate collection rate for single-use beverage bottles.

Conversely, the report finds that the study from the University of Michigan provides a more vigorous framework for discussions of reusable take-away packaging and was the only study found not to be industry-funded or lacking in transparency.

Commenting on the report, Clarissa Morawski of Reloop said: “Reuse will be an important function of a circular economy and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation can be a useful tool to start to embed reuse thinking and design into our economic systems.

“This report clearly shows that the published studies we examined which favour single-use take-away packaging over reuse are inherently flawed, biased and nowhere near transparent enough to be taken seriously in academic terms or for policy-making.”

Daniel Stunnell, Managing Consultant at Eunomia Research and Consulting, added: “Transparency is essential to maintain credibility and ensure any findings can be properly scrutinised.

“We found that by using the same underlying data but with slightly more positive assumptions for reuse, the picture ends up looking very different. For example, assuming a 90 per cent return rate rather than the 70 per cent used by McDonald’s sees a 300 per cent reduction in raw material impact, and this gets significantly better the closer we can get to 100 per cent.

“Exploring these kinds of assumptions openly is essential to understanding the environmental potential of reuse.” 

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