Reusable cutlery in fast food restaurants, is it really greener?

Another study conducted in Finland in 2014 came to a different…and similar conclusion. Led by researchers Sirkka Koskela, Helena Dahlbo, Jáchym Judl, Marja-Riitta Korhonen and Mervi Niininen, she compared the environmental footprint of recycled cardboard boxes and reusable plastic boxes in large-scale bread shipments in Finland.

These researchers are not only analyzing carbon balances, but also their impact on soil acidification, the formation of photochemical oxidants, the depletion of fossil resources, or climate change.

Without re-specifying the entire study, their case studies have the following characteristics:

  • Reusable plastic crates are made in Finland and transported to Tallinn in Estonia, where bread is baked. (240km)
  • Cardboard boxes are made in Lithuania, and also transported to bakeries in Tallinn (Estonia). (310km)
  • The loaves are then shipped from Tallinn to a distribution center in Eastern Finland. Finally, it is distributed more locally to points of sale. (715km)
  • While cardboard boxes are recycled 250 km from the point of final sale, reusable plastic boxes are sent back to the distribution center for washing, then to Tallinn to be reused in a new cycle (715 km). At the end of their useful life, they are recycled or burned for 150 km.

During its life cycle, the cardboard box travels 1275 km. The plastic case, on the other hand, travels 1105 km (production + 1 trip + end of life) and 715 km on each trip back to the distribution or production center for cleaning. At each usage cycle, 1430 km (715 km x 2) will be added to the journey covered by the reusable plastic case.

In this scenario, author concluded that recycled cardboard boxes were more environmentally friendly than plastic crate systems in all tested environmental domains. But the author is angry, this has nothing to do with the materials used compared to the transportation system implemented. “Our studies have proven that conclusions about which delivery system has a better environmental impact cannot be drawn on material alone.

The key to the results also lies, according to the researchers, in transportation. “Transportation has played a very important role in environmental impact. However, changes in, for example, the weight of the product and its secondary packaging or transport distance can greatly affect the results.

These researchers also concluded that “The importance of washing on total impact is very low.”

Finally, a meta-analysis conducted by the United Nations Environment Program in 2020 includes eleven studies on the issue of single-use or reusable food packaging. The conclusion (page 32) is similar to what we have seen before:

  • The studies analyzed show that reusable plastic take-out food packaging has a better overall environmental performance than single-use packaging, if reused in sufficient quantities.
  • However, the arrangement of the delivery system, as well as the mode of transport and the distance of the transport during the use phase, are important factors influencing these results.

This allows us to conclude that reusable packaging systems are more environmentally friendly than single-use packaging, whether cardboard or plastic, recycled or not. These reusable products are generally more harmful to the environment during their production, but amortization over multiple uses optimizes their final carbon footprint. Washing has a negligible impact on the environmental balance.

However, the large transportation distances between the point of consumption of food products and the point of washing and the mode of transport (carbonated or not) can make the advantages less obvious, or even completely counterintuitive when it comes to distances to be covered. cleaning containers several hundred kilometers away.

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