Life Cycle Assessment of reusable and single-use meal container systems
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The use of single-use packaging has increased significantly over the past decades. Especially in the rapidly growing food delivery and take-away sector, single-use meal containers are eminently used. There are significant environmental burdens associated with this, mainly because of the depletion of the planet’s natural resources and the pollution through waste generation. In line with the Circular Economy (CE) concept, in order to address these environmental consequences, reusable meal containers are being developed and introduced. Restaurants are considering replacing single-use with reusable containers. However, implementing reusable meal container systems can be realised in multiple ways because reusable containers need to be recollected and cleaned before they can be used again. Whether reusable packaging alternatives perform better environmentally than single-use ones needs to be evaluated. This research used the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method to determine the environmental impacts of reusable and single-use meal container systems with different configurations. The impact categories Cumulative energy demand, Global warming, Ozone layer depletion, Photochemical oxidation, Acidification, Eutrophication and Water use were assessed. The obtained results were compared with each other to establish if reusable systems are environmentally preferred over single-use ones, and which configurations are required to realise this. This research analysed the product systems of three commonly used types of reusable meal boxes (from polypropylene, stainless steel and glass) and three commonly used types of single-use meal boxes (from polypropylene, aluminium and paper). It can be concluded that reusable meal container systems are environmentally preferred over single-use ones, provided that correct (i.e. environmentally preferable) configurations are included in those systems. Nevertheless, when customers apply a cleaning method with high associated environmental impacts, or when the containers are retrieved with fossil fuel-based vehicles over long distances, the single-use systems can result in lower environmental impacts. The professional cleaning method of the containers also influences the resulting environmental impacts from reusable systems, although not as decisively as the customer cleaning method or the method for recollecting the containers. Additionally, it can be concluded that establishing reusable meal container systems with a high return rate is of utmost importance. There is a high potential for reducing the environmental burdens associated with meal container systems by replacing single-use with reusable containers. Future research is required to obtain additional data for modelling the potential options for recollecting the containers and on how the return rates of these types of systems can be optimised in practice.