Single-use plastics are increasingly becoming a global environmental threat – from the poles to deep oceans and our human bodies. Plastic pollution leads to animal deaths and microplastics enter our food chain. We need to change our approach from 'Take, Make, and Waste' to a circular system where products are designed for reuse with minimal loss of value or environmental damage.
Yet consumers often think that recycling single-use plastic is more sustainable than reusing plastic packaging. Frequently heard arguments against switching to reuse are that it is unsustainable, difficult to handle and expensive. Unfortunately the consumers were misled! In this article you can read why reuse is the most sustainable solution, also for your event.
An important research tool is the Life Cycle Assessments (LCA). Factors to be considered in an LCA study include type of materials, recycling rate, production process, transport, packaging, loss percentage and washing facility efficiency. Campbell found that the break-evens (after how much reuse the environmental impact is lower compared to recycling) are quite low, even for cups. Let's say a beer cup is made from an efficient material such as recycled polyester. The majority of the carbon footprint of the cup you throw away is not the material, but the production processes.
More recently, a 2019 LCA study on the environmental impact of reusable cup systems showed that a reusable cup can be the most sustainable choice after just 5 reuses. In that scenario, a comparison was made based on the most common scenarios of the Plastic Promise pilots in 2019: a lightweight reusable Polypropylene (PP) cup that is cleaned in an efficient cup wash and with a failure rate (the number of cups that are not returned or is no longer suitable for reuse due to damage) of 10%, versus a recyclable rPET cup with a recycling percentage of 75%.
So every time you use a disposable cup, you're throwing away a large portion of its footprint because you have to make a new one. During production process, granulates are purchased, dried, extruded and thermoformed. There are all kinds of transport involved and a lot of energy is used.
When it comes to the reusable cup, its shape, its function are kept, because it is not destroyed. The product can be used multiple times, but it is not lost. From an environmental (LCA) point of view this is a very strong argument for reuse.
But how often does a cup last in practice? Of course, this depends on a number of circumstances such as the failure rate and the method of use (a cup that ends up on the ground and/or comes into contact with sand is more likely to be damaged). The cup suppliers agree that a cup can be used at least 20 times, but with optimal use it can be used 100+ times. The tipping point of using 5 times to make reuse a more sustainable choice than recycling is therefore amply achieved!
By implementing a return system, the failure rate for the reusable cup system can be limited. If the comparison is made between a lightweight reusable PP cup that is cleaned in an efficient cup wash and with a failure rate of 2%, versus a recyclable rPET cup with a recycling rate of 92%, the turning point is also 5 uses. This use can take place during the entire lifespan of the cups and therefore does not have to happen during one event. The cups can be used again at other events after the cleaning process.
Less significant for the environmental impact, but also important, are the cup materials. Polypropylene (PP) is the most sustainable choice. Because this cup is less likely to be damaged, it lasts longer than a cup made of polycarbonate (PC). The weight of the cups also play a role. Partly as a result of the 2019 LCA research, cup suppliers have developed new cups that contain less plastic and are therefore even lighter in weight.
Contrary to popular belief, transportation does not play the most significant role when it comes to the environmental impact of a reusable cup system. Of course it is always good to limit transport kilometers to limit CO2 emissions. In addition to the distance between the event location and the cup supplier, transport planning also plays a role. In efficient transport planning, as few empty trucks as possible are driven, for example by combining transports.
2022 pilots Green Deal Circular Festivals
In 2022 several pilots on reusable cups and food containers were performed in the Netherlands at DGTL, Castlefest and Into the Great Wide Open. At ITGWO, approximately 200,000 reusable items were deployed, saving more than 300,000 single-use items – items that would otherwise have been thrown away and burned. Apart from some napkins, paper and (compostable) straws, ITGWO used no longer disposable items.
During the pilots research was done on the visitors, caterers and festival organizations’ experience. This research revealed the experience was very positive. Around 95% of the people really enjoyed the reusable system, mainly because of its usability (it is a sturdy material) and the appearance (more aesthetic than single-use items).
People were happy that they did not contribute to a huge mountain of plastic waste. This was a highlight in the pilots. The organizations received so much praise and enthusiasm from the people using this, that the realization arose that the events industry is at a point where apparently everyone is waiting for these types of systems.
An organizational challenge was to convince everyone that this reuse system would work. Especially because you are interfering in the affairs of caterers, who will ultimately be hit financially if it doesn't work. In addition, the system itself – such as retrieval, collection and sorting – is quite a challenge, but at the same time it is also very doable. The loss of reusable items was less than 5%. A relatively low percentage, especially for the first time, and without a recycle token or deposit system. A deposit system for the cups was used.
The challenges are broader, it's not just a challenge of single-use versus reusable. It is a challenge to eliminate fossil raw materials. Oil is the main ingredient for plastics. It's about our consumer culture, about our health, about the health of our ecosystems. Not everybody is fully aware of the fossil raw materials and waste problems. A challenge is to develop new ways to produce what was once known as plastic.
In addition to the failure rate, cup wash efficiency plays an important role when it comes to the environmental impact of reusable cups. The flushing capacity, water and energy consumption are decisive. Modern, innovative cup washers that run entirely on sustainable energy and work according to the strictest hygiene requirements are being developed.
For optimal hygiene, it is advisable not to rinse the cups manually in a sink, but always to clean them in a professional cup wash. There are also mobile cup washers developed that you can be used on location.
European legislation for eliminating single use plastics is in place (SUP Directive). The European goal for 2026 is a 40% reduction in single use plastics (f.i. beverage cups and food containers). At European level, an 'Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for drinking cups and food packaging' will apply from 2024. Per January 1, 2024 single use plastics are forbidden for events.
Systems and methods to support reusable systems are developed to make it easier for an organizer to implement a reusable cup system. This includes apps that help you keep accurate administration and settle deposit flows and systems that make it easier and safer to pay deposits to visitors. Also special intake baskets for a fast turnover in the bar are available now. This makes counting the cups a lot easier and clearer.
A frequently heard argument for not switching to a reusable system is the high costs. This is certainly not always the case. In addition to saving on cleaning and waste costs, a revenue model could be designed in the return system. Please note that this does not increase the failure rate. The revenue model can be made profitable by having the visitor pay a higher deposit amount than the return amount when returning the cup.
Want to start eliminating single-use plastic in your operations? Our GDCF Model provides the direction you might be looking for. In our GDCF Toolbox, you can find more inspiration, cases, and tools about circularity in plastics and materials.