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The corrugated packaging industry is working to counteract global macro forces creating headwinds against the practice of discarding packaging after only one use.  The winds of change are blowing away from disposable packaging that has contributed to uncontrollable solid waste generation and unnecessary consumption of natural resources, among other unsustainable environmental conditions.  The transformation is concentrating around the principles that solid waste is a byproduct of poor design and there are tremendous advantages by maintaining the utility and value of products as long as possible before they become materials again.

Corrugated trade organizations are actively purveying information and messaging comparing the merits between their single-use recycled boxes and reusable packaging containers.  Europe’s proposed Packaging & Packaging Waste Regulation seeking to increase market adoptions of reusable packaging is their provocateur today.  The corrugated industry’s strategy takes a page from an old political campaign handbook that recommends “going negative” on the opposition to cast doubt and lower popularity.  Like we see in common political discourse today, the tactics lead to overlooking important perspectives and offering false choices that can perpetuate a troubling status quo.

The biggest flaw in the corrugated industry’s claims derives from the attempted comparison between single-use recycling models and reusable packaging systems:  they are fundamentally incomparable.  Product specifications, attributes, and market performance can certainly be functionally compared, but the processes and impacts of recycling versus reuse cannot.  They are wholly unique approaches and outcomes to material management.  Recycling is about recovering the raw material for another manufacture, and reuse is about recovering the product for another use.  The corrugated box requires a new manufacture for each use, and the reusable container avoids another manufacture for as long as possible.  Recycling manages product waste, and reuse prevents product waste.  In short, material management of something disposable is vastly different than product management of something durable.

We can test the incomparable notion through several lenses:

  1. Circular Economy.  Corrugated industry messaging takes great liberty claiming corrugated boxes as “the real Circular Economy champion,” despite single-use recycling widely viewed as a “last resort” practice in a circular economy.  Foremost expert in circularity, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), shows in the technical cycle that material recycling is the outermost loop of impact, whereas product reuse is an inner loop preferred activity in a circular economy.  “These inner loops are where most value can be captured because they retain more of the embedded value of a product by keeping it whole.”  In contrast, “the outermost loop, recycling, is therefore the stage of last resort in a circular economy because it means losing the embedded value of a product by reducing it to its basic materials.”  EMF concludes that single-use packaging waste is “only appropriate when it cannot be designed out and reusable alternatives are not possible.”

A circular economy is about achieving economic growth that is decoupled from constant resource extraction.  Single-use products like a corrugated box rely on continuous material consumption, regardless of sourcing from virgin or recycled paper fibers.  A more plausible title for the one-time use and recycling of a corrugated box is a “Linear Economy champion,” where material recovery for new manufacture is a highly efficient linear process.  Designing out waste by extending a product’s maximum use and value, before it becomes a constituent material again, is a core circular principle and one that a reusable packaging system follows.

  1. Economic Significance.  There is great disparity in the economic contribution of single-use packaging versus reusable packaging.  When choosing a corrugated box, for example, a primary consideration is pricing to procure the packaging at the lowest cost.  The corrugated box is a commodity and a sensitive component to cost of goods and profit margins.  As the box exchanges ownership at different stages of the supply chain, there is little incentive to invest and innovate when the lowest unit cost is paramount, and the end destination is a trash or recycling bin. 

In contrast, while leased or ownership cost of reusable packaging on a per use basis is an important factor, the reusable product and accompanying services offer value-creating opportunities for the use application.  Reusable packaging is designed for lasting uses, and as such products like reusable plastic containers (RPCs) can incorporate many features improving packaging performance and capabilities, and investments and innovations can be amortized cost-effectively over time.  Reuse systems offer supply chain advantages that can deliver higher returns beyond the package itself, such as superior protection and quality of carried goods, higher unit load stability and utilization, improved handling ergonomics and worker safety, increased labor compatibilities and time-saving efficiencies, and technology and automation enablement. 

Single-use packaging’s objective is to distribute goods at the lowest cost, often passing disposal expenses to local municipalities and taxpayers.  Reusable packaging’s objective is to leverage a refined system of perpetual use to create new economic, environmental, and social value for all involved parties, using asset ownership to keep products away from disposal.

  1. Supply Chain Resiliency.  The massive disruption on raw material availability and sourcing due to the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the problem of reliance on single-use resources for business operations.  Raw material shortages and volatile commodity costs played havoc on companies acquiring the inputs and tools needed to conduct their businesses.  With a reusable packaging system, the products are already manufactured and available, and there is no need to scramble for limited resources for operational continuity.  Businesses deploying reusable packaging have inventory certainty that disconnects from the raw material market.  Single-use packaging is dependent on commodity markets leading to cost variances, whereas reusable packaging breaks away from this resource reliance and stabilizes cost of goods.

The elimination of material resource dependency through reuse builds resiliency in business operations and serves as a major distinction between single use and reuse models.  Single use requires a constant flow of raw materials, and reuse requires a constant flow of products.  The sustainability of a company’s operation to manage through increasingly disruptive global market conditions would greatly improve by severing ties to requiring constant material inputs and choosing to reuse products already in inventory.

  1. LCA Modeling.  The corrugated industry cites a life cycle assessment (LCA) on fresh produce applications to allege that the corrugated single-use system “performed better compared to the multiple-use system in most of the impact categories considered but not in all categories.”  LCAs can be useful tools in comparing full-cycle impacts, but they are only static snapshots based on variable data inputs and sensitivity ranges.  The study correctly discloses that the comparisons are “strongly dependent” on assumptions, boundaries, and scenarios, and when considering factors such as waste management and avoidance of virgin materials production,“ LCA results of comparative analysis are influenced by uncertain data.”

An example of variable inputs leading to questionable conclusions can be found in this LCA.  The study uses percentages representing general paperboard industry statistics, when realistically the figures are lower for corrugated boxes having direct food contact applications like fresh produce, which the corrugated industry separately acknowledges.  For the reuse model, the LCA uses general EUROSTAT data for “all plastic packaging,” when professionally managed RPC pools and other closed-loop systems for transport containers realize much higher recycling rates, especially with many reusable manufacturers offering inventory take-back programs to maximize recycling and material reuse rates.

More significant than the varying data inputs, it is important to recognize that the LCA dismisses the impacts of scale and optimization on reuse system results.  As more supply chains adopt reusable packaging and volume increases scale, more operational synergies and streamlining can take place that expands infrastructures and reduces operational impacts like transportation distances.  Also, today’s technologies are enabling smart and connected reusable products that will improve inventory management and raise recovery, reuse, and recycling rates.  We should not evaluate reuse where it stands today, but rather where it can go tomorrow.

There is something that the corrugated industry has gotten right: “Recyclable single-use and reusable packaging should be considered as complementary solutions.”  This is a position taken by the corrugated industry in lobbying Europe’s packaging proposal.  However, their complementary position also warns against the growth of reuse for obvious market-protecting ambitions.  Their reasoning insinuates incorrectly that the poor track record of recycling rates for all single-use plastics would be the same for professionally managed plastic containers in a reuse system.

Reusable packaging and single-use recycling should be complementary solutions in the eyes of policymakers and businesses, but with inverted prioritization and establishment in the market.  Whether it’s the adage in order of reduce-reuse-recycle, or the layers on the time-tested waste hierarchy pyramid, or the loops of a circular economy, product reuse as a form of source reduction should be preferred over material recycling for greater results.  When reusable packaging systems cannot be effective, then single use products with recycling is desired. 

This is the corrugated industry’s dilemma.  You cannot be for solid waste reduction and circularity, but then aim to stifle the growth and success of more impactful source-reduction systems.  You cannot be for complementary solutions, but then act to suppress the corresponding piece.  You cannot be for the future, but then take actions to hold onto the past.

Reusable packaging systems do not fulfill their promise at time of commercial launch.  It takes time to change behaviors, cultivate performance, and optimize efficiencies.  Reuse systems are also never finished, as scale breeds new insights, collaborations, and innovations.  The single-use packaging industry does not want reuse to achieve optimizing results because there would be no turning back to low cost, low value single-use designs where waste is created after each use and resources are expended for each use.  So the marketers turn to a negative campaign against reuse, drawing comparisons between models that are systematically incomparable.  Let’s stick with the complementary approach, first choosing to reuse what we produce, and then recycle products that cannot be reused into valued materials.  That approach is more reflective of a circular economy champion.

Tim Debus
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association

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