A new life cycle assessment shows reusable plastic containers can match up environmentally against single-use containers and even outperform them — under the right conditions.
University of Michigan researchers in Ann Arbor, Mich., are reporting a reusable takeout container can compete against a single-use container depending on how many times it is reused and under what conditions.
Reusables can break even with their single-use brethren after four to 13 reuses when it comes greenhouse gas emissions, the study shows.
"Reducing the quantity of single-use plastics in the restaurant industry by implementing reusable takeout container systems has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save on energy, water and cost," Greg Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the university, said in an article published on the university's website. "Our study found that reusable containers can outperform single-use in all impact categories."
A key factor in keeping a reusable container competitive is consumer behavior.
Factors that would tip the favor to one-time-use containers include whether consumers made specific trips just to return their reusables and how containers are washed before they are returned.
Researchers published their findings in the Resources, Conservation & Recycling journal for March 2023.
"Our analysis demonstrates that switching to a reusable container system can achieve impact reductions for primary energy, GWP [global warming potential], water consumption, waste and cost, making such systems effective in improving the sustainability performance of restaurant takeout. Depending on the single-use container being replaced, we found that the reusable alternative can break even in GWP and primary energy impacts in four–13 uses," the journal article states.
"Our findings show the reusable container system results in impact reductions in most environmental and cost performance metrics compared to the use of single-use containers," the article states.
University researchers said packaging represents 42 percent of all nonfiber plastic ever produced, and the global plastic waste generation is projected to nearly triple from 2019 to 2060.