The environmental threat of packaging waste is prompting some consumers to turn against single-use packaging and, in particular, plastic. However, this valuable, versatile material can be sustainable. The key is reuse. IFCO leads the way with its pooling system of Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs).
The first synthetic polymer just might have saved the elephants. During the 19th century, societies consumed hundreds of thousands of pounds of ivory – primarily for billiard balls. American inventor John Wesley Hyatt then developed a moldable celluloid intended as a substitute for elephant tusk. Yet the significance of this discovery went deeper: suddenly humans no longer had to rely on what nature produced. They could create new materials. Enthusiasts believed plastic would save the environment. 1
And beginning in the mid-20th century, with mass production, plastics boomed. Whether in cars, medical equipment, playthings or for keeping food and water fresh, this versatile material has become ubiquitous to modern life. However, consumers today are increasingly questioning the use – and perceived overuse – of plastic. Some people are turning against all forms and types – in particular single-use packaging. According to National Geographic: "It took less than four decades for plastic bags to make the transition from marvel to menace." 2
Yet plastic is not all bad, and not all plastic is bad. Made from various organic polymers, this adaptable material is optimal for wide range of food packaging. It is waterproof, can withstand high temperature ranges and does not support the growth of microorganisms, so it slows food decay. It is durable and resilient, pliable or rigid, and can be mass produced and almost infinitely formed. 3 Plastic is also very light, which saves costs in food transport. In contrast to baskets or wooden crates, for example, plastic crates are nestable and easily folded when empty to save space. This reduces the number of trucks needed when returning containers, which reduces emissions.
When taking into account the positives and negatives – along with the true costs of alternatives – as with ivory, plastic is often rightly substituted for other materials. The key to keeping it sustainable is reuse. As a leader in the circular economy, IFCO relies on this model, through sharing and reuse of our Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs). Our pooling system of sharing reduces the need to produce greater quantities of containers, which would use more resources, while reuse avoids waste and lowers environmental impact. So when choosing packaging, shoppers and suppliers can ask themselves a simple question: Can this container be reused?
Faced with bans on disposable bags, for example, many shoppers are bringing their own reusable totes – which are usually made of recycled plastic. At its core, this shift is about replacing certain beliefs and behaviors with others. If people change the way they look at plastics, they learn to view the material as a valuable part of a circular economy – not as part of the problem.
In the linear economy, consumers typically discard a product, including packaging, after its first and only use. In contrast, reuse is central to the circular economy model, which trades resources in closed loops or cycles to keep them in use for as long as possible to extract the maximum value. At the end of their service life, products are regenerated to recover the materials, with the aim of producing zero waste.
Sharing and reuse has always been our model. IFCO RPCs are manufactured and recycled in a closed loop. IFCO RPCs are used between 30 and 120 times on average. Their high quality means they can be repaired to keep them in use for as long as possible, until they are 100 percent recycled at the end of their service life. And through our pooling system, IFCO manages all aspects of recollection, washing, disinfection and distribution of our RPCs. This makes sharing and reuse easier for our customers, saving them time and money.
Along the supply chain, growers, distributors and retailers are changing from single-use to reusable packaging and moving toward a circular business model designed to reduce waste by reusing resources. Reducing packaging waste is just one advantage of our pooling system. IFCO RPCs also deliver a range of further environmental benefits for our customers. In contrast to single-use materials, sturdy RPCs do not absorb moisture or collapse. They protect fresh products better, which lowers food waste, and this in turn reduces carbon dioxide and methane gas created by food rotting in landfills. And their low weight results in fewer emissions during transport.
When measuring overall environmental impact, a life-cycle assessment (LCA) reveals that using IFCO RPCs instead of single-use packaging delivers 60 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 86 percent less solid waste and 80 percent lower water consumption.
In their personal efforts to reduce waste, many consumers dutifully put packaging material in recycling containers. Yet recycling alone will not solve the single-use problem. According to a 2017 paper, "Production, Use and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made," by Roland Geyer at the University of California, Santa Barbara4, less than 10 percent of the world’s plastic has been recycled. It must be sorted, cleaned and processed, making it difficult to effectively or cost-efficiently reclaim material. Challenges also exist in the quality of recycled content.
Recently, consumers in Western economies have become more aware that their waste is not recycled where it is produced,5 because much of Asia has essentially closed the door to imports of foreign material.6 Many municipalities in the US and Europe have responded by reducing or even halting their disposable plastic-recycling efforts.7
For reducing waste, reuse remains the better option, which puts it in focus of environmental policy. "Gaining an understanding of how to systemically implement reusable packaging solutions should be a top priority of the packaging and food industry,"1 states the Institute for European Environmental Policy. Further, the experts recommend measures including "greater investment and funding for waste-prevention systems, including zero and reusable packaging systems."2
In Europe, various reusable packaging systems already exist. In Germany, for example, the brewing and beverages industry runs a system based on returnable, reusable glass and plastic bottles along with reusable plastic carrying crates. Shoppers who want to reduce waste can choose beverages in packaging that can be reused. They can also bring reusable totes with them to the store. And they might choose to shop where retailers display fresh produce in reusable plastic containers – because IFCO RPCs are 100 percent recycled so they will never end up on landfills or in the world’s oceans.