Three LCAs on takeaway packaging: more transparency needed to ensure credibility

Eunomia report looks at studies drawn up for McDonald’s, university and paper association


The consulting firm Eunomia has published a discussion paper drawn up on behalf of the environmental organisations Zero Waste Europe and Reloop, which examines life-cycle analyses (LCAs) for single-use and reusable takeaway packaging. Entitled "Unveiling the Complexities: Exploring LCAs of Reusable Packaging in the Takeaway Sector", the report looks at three LCAs comparing reusable and single-use packaging that were carried out for the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA), McDonald’s, and the University of Michigan. The first two studies aimed to challenge arguments raised in favour of reusable items in the takeaway sector.

These oft-quoted studies frequently lacked transparency and had been found to exhibit biases against reuse, Zero Waste said, underscoring possible funding interests, cherry-picked scenarios and false assumptions.

Eunomia concluded that the McDonald’s study lacked transparency about its methods and data, which made it hard to validate its conclusions in a meaningful manner. The report thus called for readers to exercise caution when considering the reliability of the study’s findings.  

According to the Eunomia report, take-back rates, washing systems and dedicated return journeys are critical assumptions that must be scrutinised when analysing reusable fast food packaging. It became clear that the EPPA study was marred by a critical flaw, even though it had undergone a peer review: the creation of a baseline scenario that favoured single-use options. Eunomia noted that pessimistic take-back rates of 50 to 70 per cent, decentralised washing and excessive return transport led to a poor outcome for reuse.

The Eunomia report claims that the EPPA study was heavily based on assumptions with a weak evidence basis. Moreover, its conclusions were distorted in favour of single-use alternatives because it only took account of the status quo, which was limited by the current linear economic model.

The authors of the EPPA report claimed that poorly designed reuse systems were unlikely to outperform single-use alternatives, even though the reuse systems they focused on were suboptimal. The debate should instead focus on what could be done to improve reuse systems rather than how they performed in the status quo, Zero Waste commented.

However, the third study from the University of Michigan provided a much more robust framework for constructive discussions about reusable takeaway packaging. It was also the only study not to be funded by industry and that did not lack transparency or assumptions, according to the NGOs

Greater transparency in published studies was key to understanding the economic and environmental feasibility of reusable takeaway packaging options compared with single-use alternatives, the environmental organisations added.

Concerns about potential deletion of PPWR's reuse targets

Within the broader context of current negotiations about reuse targets in the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), it was important for political decision-making to be based on the best available evidence rather than lobbying, Zero Waste said.

The environmental organisations raised concerns that reusable packaging targets might be ditched altogether. It was thus essential to critically review anti-reuse theories and evidence to ensure the right conclusions were drawn and the best environmental outcomes occurred.

According to Clarissa Morawski from Reloop, the report clearly showed that these studies, which favoured single-use takeaway packaging over reusable options, were "inherently flawed, biased and nowhere near transparent enough to be taken seriously academically or for policy-making”.

Larissa Copello from Zero Waste Europe added. "It’s clear that some of the industry-funded studies on reusable takeaway packaging are flawed and did not explore the full potential of reuse systems for packaging. There’s no such a thing as a sustainable material, but rather a sustainable system. When it comes to reusable packaging, a key element for efficient systems is pooling systems for reuse, under which the ownership of the packaging is shared among the participants as well as all the logistics and infrastructure, including washing facilities, collection points, etc. The revision of the PPWR should support such well-designed systems to be scaled up across Europe, through mandatory reuse targets and economic incentives for reuse."

Daniel Stunell from Eunomia described transparency as essential to maintain credibility and ensure that any findings can be properly examined. "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." He concluded that exploring these kinds of assumptions was key to understanding the environmental potential of reuse.

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