This week, consulting firm Kearney released their study "No Silver Bullet", assessing the impact of three circularity solutions in the Informal Eating Out (IEO) sector. The EU's proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) solutions involve reducing or replacing (composting), reusing and recycling across both dine-in and takeaway outlets. The study, commissioned by fast food giant McDonald’s and launched at an event organised by the European Paper Packaging Alliance, aims to show that the PPWR's focus on reuse could adversely affect the economy, food safety and the environment, increasing plastic packaging waste overall. Despite running themselves one of Europe's most popularly reported reusable packaging models.
Willemijn Peeters, CEO of circular plastics company Searious Business, disagrees wholeheartedly. "I understand the emotional response to the PPWR from the IEO and paper packaging industries. Business as usual is obviously easier. But reuse WILL play a central role in waste reduction. We mustn't sink the ship before it has set sail."
Eyes on 2030
The report imagines a scenario where IEOs are forced to adopt a 100% reusable packaging model by 2030, abandoning investment in recycling and composting. This conflicts with the proposed PPWR's 2030 targets asking for only 20% reusable cups for hot and cold drinks, food packaging and bottles being reduced to just 10%. Even by 2040, after a decade of scaling up logistics and increasing public acceptance, these targets will only grow to 80% for cups and 40% for food containers. The PPWR reinforces recycling ventures by demanding full recyclability of all packaging and higher recycled content mandates. The one area the PPWR does not support, however, is the expansion of compostable packaging, something the paper packaging industry is incentivised to question if they want to stay marketable.
Jean-Pierre Schweitzer at the European Environmental Bureau stated that the publication appears more as a position paper than a robust study and questions the lack of transparency on the wild assumptions behind the conclusions. All impact analyses contain necessary assumptions; this report must also predict the future. They have extrapolated 2021 figures and assumed improved recycling rates and industrial composting infrastructure. It also applies a positive outlook on reuse, predicting relatively high return rates of 70% for takeaway and 95% for dine-in. However, they only anticipate packaging being used 3 times for takeaway and 20 times for dine-in situations, presuming damage, contamination or loss. All reuse models require multiple revolutions to counteract the environmental impact of manufacturing longer-life products. Materials and design must be well-chosen, and clear instructions be given on proper use.
The success of reuse will also depend on scale and the supporting logistics and cleaning system surrounding it. Basing data on small-scale preliminary pilots run by McDonald’s in Germany is not representative of a sector-wide mandated adoption of reusable packaging. Reuse models in food consumption are indeed in their infancy. The public is not accustomed to interacting with reusable packaging, and while single-use options are still available, cheaper and more convenient, uptake will remain low. McDonald’s also finds that customers are holding on to their packaging, finding them cute. This is expected when packaging is aesthetically pleasing, especially branded with a desirable logo. This initial lower return quota should rectify itself in time. No one wants or needs 10 plastic fry containers, and if the restaurant charges a deposit higher than the cost, it even generates extra income.
Alongside material and system choice, the most important element of viable reuse models is instigating behavioural change using various motivational levers.