China environmental study finds reusable takeout packaging favorable to paper-based alternatives
01 Oct 2020 --- Reusable “sharing” tableware could reduce takeout packaging waste in China by up to 92 percent, equating to higher waste and emissions reductions than paper alternatives.
In a new multi-university study, the reusable packaging mechanism outperformed paper-based solutions that are broadly hailed as a more environmentally sustainable throwaway packaging alternative to plastics.
The study highlights that China has a rapidly growing online food delivery and takeout market, serving 406 million customers with 10 billion orders and generating 323 kilotonnes of tableware and packaging waste in 2018.
Co-lead author Dr. Yuli Shan tells PackagingInsights that these study findings do not mean that consumerism and environmental protectionism have to cancel each other out.
“What we propose is reducing waste and emissions via a concept of sharing economy rather than reducing consumption.”
Dr. Shan works at the Energy and Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.
How green is paper?
Paper substitutions scenarios for single-use plastic takeout packaging were found to reduce plastic waste by 57 percent and CO2 emissions by 49 percent.
“Surprisingly,” however, they are also expected to increase chemical oxygen demand, dioxin and water, Dr. Ya Zhou shares with PackagingInsights. She is the lead author of this study and an associate professor at Guangdong University of Technology.
“If we could use reused tableware, the emissions will be reduced further. We are not arguing paperboards are not good, but want to say for those [regional] areas without formal paper collection and recycling systems, paper substitution is not the optimal option.”
Moreover, the study revealed that more than two-thirds of environmental emissions – including carbon, sulfur and nitrogen dioxide – and water consumption could be reduced via shared tableware.
Single-use plastic food containers serve two primary purposes: convenience and food safety. There have been concerns that reusable packaging could not deliver the same standard as single-use, but there are multiple post-use cleaning possibilities.
“For the centralized take-back mechanism, the reusable tableware is taken back by its courier and convenient for consumers. For the decentralized take-back mechanism, deposits make consumers return the reusable tableware consciously.”
Chinese government intervention
The research team based in China, the Netherlands and the UK explored packaging waste and life-cycle environmental impacts of the takeaway industry in China via a top-down approach with city-level takeaway order data.
Just 7 percent of China’s population were responsible for 30 percent of its takeaway waste in the ten most wasteful cities.
The top ten most wasteful cities also recorded 27 to 34 percent of China’s pollutant emissions and 30 percent of its water consumption.
In national efforts to reduce waste and emissions, China has introduced a number of impactful legislative moves in the past two years. The country signed a ban on single-use plastics to phase them out by 2025, following a 2008 ban on free plastic bags.
China also signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding on Circular Economy Cooperation with the EU in 2018, uniting the world’s two biggest economies on policies that support the transition to a circular economy.
Similar policy efforts will “surely be welcomed by the public”, Dr. Shan says. “These environmental protection policies won’t affect people’s daily life much, but will improve our environment effectively – for both China’s local environment and in the context of global plastic packaging reduction. So why not?”
By Anni Schleicher
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