Recyclable packaging vs reusable packaging

A recent consumer behaviour survey by Deloitte shows that 61% of customers are avoiding products that use single-use plastics. This includes choosing sustainable materials for both the products and packaging.

In the past, it was thought that reusable packaging was best for the environment, however, a recent FEFCO study has highlighted that this may not be the case.


The findings of the FEFCO study

The three studies released by FEFCO were conducted by an independent consultancy (Ramboll) and a research institute (VTT). The studies evaluate the impact of recyclable corrugated board packaging compared to reusable plastic packaging and revealed a series of important conclusions.

The peer-reviewed comparative life-cycle assessment compares the environmental impact of corrugated cardboard boxes and plastic crates when transporting produce over average distances in Europe.

Key findings show that:

  • The corrugated board system is more beneficial in 10 out of 15 impact categories, including climate change, total resource use including fossils, minerals, and metals.
  • The break-even analysis shows that plastic crates would need to reach a minimum of 63 rotations to outperform corrugated boxes in the climate change impact category. According to the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), the average reuse rate of plastic reusable crates is 24 rotations which is below the break-even.


Recyclable corrugated v reusable plastic solutions

The hot spot analysis of the e-commerce logistic chain evaluates recyclable corrugated versus reusable plastic solutions. The study identified 51 hot spots, or stages in the life cycle, which account for a significant proportion of the environmental impact of the packaging within the supply chain.

The top 3 hot spots are:

  • Real number of uses for multiple-use solutions is the most important parameter, as official EU data does not exist, and available data is not always transparent.
  • Logistics parameters are ranked second, indicating the transport distances have a major impact notably on emissions and will continue to influence the life cycle of the product.
  • Percentage of recycled material used in production is another key point as the data for recycled content of reusable packaging is limited.



The white paper provides a critical view on packaging recycling and reuse in the European Circular Economy. The study conclusions are:

  • The concept of ‘fit for purpose’ packaging should be central in the Commission’s proposal of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) as it contributes to achieving circularity and climate neutrality while reducing waste.
  • Both recyclable corrugated and reusable packaging solutions could provide appropriate solutions depending on the packaging requirements and should be considered by the European Commission when proposing legislation.
  • The waste hierarchy should be improved based on life cycle thinking, as reusable packaging is not always the most sustainable solution.
  • Environmental impacts may simply shift, not disappear, as a result of scaling up reuse systems.
  • There is no obvious best choice when selecting between recyclable and reusable packaging solutions as results vary significantly on a case-by-case basis. This demonstrates a clear need to avoid a one-size-fits-all policy and rather focus on fit-for-purpose solutions.
  • The shift to reusable systems involves substantial initial economic investments thus creating new costs related to washing, repair etc. while burdening the environment, with no guarantee of success.


The three studies demonstrate that both recyclable and reusable packaging play a valuable role in the Circular Economy. They also provide evidence that there could be unintentional consequences should the EU prioritise scaling up reuse at the cost of recycling.

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