Plastic packaging - reusable, disposable or abolishable?

Fraunhofer CCPE compact on the study "Plastic packaging - reusable, disposable or completely gone?"

The circular economy of plastics is far from being realized; especially in the packaging sector, the reuse rates of secondary materials are at an alarming level. The online workshop will discuss situations when the combination of single-use and recycling is a realistic option for a circular plastics economy and whether, in many cases, reusable packaging may be a better way to achieve the goal, as suggested by a study conducted by researchers from the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence Circular Plastics Economy CCPE. Commissioned by the Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg (SIM), they compared three plastic-based reusable systems with their single-use alternatives. The result: Reusable is superior to single-use in 14 of the 17 categories examined. What is missing is the political will to implement the existing waste hierarchy, which actually prioritizes reusables.

Reusable vs. disposable - who will make the race? In this scene, the reusable folding box is ahead of the  disposable box.
© Mario Iser, Jürgen Bertling © 2022
Reusable vs. disposable - who will make the race? In this scene, the reusable folding box is ahead of the disposable box.

Only 13 percent of the plastics produced in Germany are made from recyclates. In the packaging sector, the number is even as low as 11 percent. In addition, only a very small proportion is reused for its original purpose; cascade uses (downcycling) generally dominate The EU and the German government have reacted to the plastics problem: The production of some single-use plastic products has been banned, a recycled content quota has been imposed on PET beverage bottles, and since the beginning of 2022, the deposit on single-use beverage bottles has been extended to all types of beverages. »The EU's Green Deal and Taxonomy Regulation set the right direction for sustainable management. From our point of view, however, there is the following problem: The waste hierarchy, which has been regulated in European waste legislation for decades, defines an order of priority in the generation and handling of plastic waste. In this hierarchy, recycling is secondary to multiple use. However, the implementation of this waste hierarchy has hardly taken place so far.«, explains Jürgen Bertling from the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT and project manager of the study.

Circularity, performance and sustainability

For plastic packaging in particular, there are currently mainly single-use solutions. Some reusable systems can be found in the B2B sector, e.g. in the automotive industry and in fruit and vegetable transport. In the B2C sector, they are rather the exception, such as the transport boxes for food from the regional farmer. The aim of the current study by Fraunhofer CCPE on behalf of the Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg was therefore to evaluate plastic-based reusable packaging systems, compare them with single-use alternatives and extract recommendations for strengthening the circular economy. For this purpose, the researchers analyzed the three reusable systems fruit and vegetable crates (already established in the trade), plant trays (in preparation for extensive use) and coffee-to-go cups (introductory phase). They were compared with the respective corresponding single-use solutions in the three areas of circularity, performance and sustainability in a total of 17 subcategories. The analysis showed that reusable offers clear advantages for all three demonstrators studied - from material efficiency and lower plastic emissions to better product protection through more robust designs.

For companies, reusable containers initially mean a higher capital outlay due to the need to set up logistics, return systems, storage areas and cleaning technology. In the long term, however, reusable systems prove to be less expensive and more resource-efficient. They strengthen regional economies and contribute to increased technological sovereignty. »The decisive factors for the advantageousness of a reusable system are above all the number of cycles and the distribution structure: the higher the number of cycles and the lower the transport distances, the better the performance of reusables compared to disposables. Decentralized pool solutions are therefore elementary here.«, explains Kerstin Dobers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML, co-author of the study. Compared with other packaging materials such as paper or wood, plastic has a number of beneficial properties - lightweight, durable, chemically inert - and thus remains the material of choice for numerous applications, especially in reusable systems.  

Consistently implement waste hierarchy and optimize reusables

The report is aimed equally at politicians, associations, manufacturers of plastic packaging and suppliers of reusable pool solutions. The team of authors concludes by recommending two key measures: For one, ways to consistently implement the waste hierarchy should be identified and promoted. Single-use systems should only come into play when multiple-use options have been exhausted. »This result of the study is in contrast to today's reality on the packaging market. There must be new political parameters that sanction the avoidance of this order. At the same time, incentive systems should be created for companies to increasingly establish reusable solutions for plastics«, Jürgen Bertling says. He also calls for the waste hierarchy to be reviewed by a panel of experts and then strictly implemented in practice. It also makes sense, he says, to focus less on recycling rates and instead specify demanding recyclate proportions in production.  

For another, according to Kerstin Dobers, the second key measure is to exploit the existing optimization potential for reusable solutions so that their advantages are further expanded and possible deficits are eliminated: »Certainly, there are still numerous innovations possible in reusable solutions, especially in online retailing or in the take-away sector. Good solutions are characterized by the fact that the packaging is modular and its volume can be reduced (nestable or foldable). Here, general conditions for national and international standardization are required in order to exploit the ecological potential of reusable systems.«
In addition, environmental labels for identifying reusable and disposable products must be clear. Associations in particular are needed here.

Workshop invitation

Experts from CCPE research and industry will report on the extent to which reusable packaging is actually the better packaging solution in many cases, or whether innovations in single-use packaging and its recycling can increase recycling, at the Fraunhofer CCPE Compact online workshop on June 23, 2022.  Registrations are still possible until June 17, 2022 under  


Link to the study: