Managed, reusable plastic container systems in supply chain and e-commerce delivery provide substantial environmental savings compared to single-use corrugated cardboard. Reusable plastic container cleaning services are essential in sustaining reuse programs, ensuring confidence and integrity in using reusable plastic containers and ultimately the linchpin to a Circular Economy.
Reusable plastic containers expend less energy, create less greenhouse gases, and consume significantly less water than corrugated fiber boxes when manufactured. Cardboard requires the same inputs each time a box is manufactured from the pulp mill to the box cutting line. Here are a few quick stats:
13 kilograms of water is lost (consumed) for each kilogram of cardboard produced. [i] To put this in perspective, 168,000 metric tonnes of old corrugated cardboard were recovered from Ontario Blue Box programs in 2016. [ii] This amounts to 2.184 billion litres of water lost from our freshwater systems from Ontario consumers alone. You can fill 875 Olympic sized swimming pools with this much water!
Cardboard pulping, box and recycling operations are “Open Loop” systems which incur material loss at each cycle [iii]. Plastic packaging on the other hand provides a 73% reduction in Global Warming Potential when factoring the decomposition of end of life, pulp mill fiber residuals[iv].
In a recent Life Cycle Analysis published comparing one-way Open Loop and reusable Closed Loop container systems of fresh produce delivery from fields to stores across North America, the reusable plastic containers provided significant reductions of adverse environmental impacts [v].
Here are the reductions when deploying reusable plastic containers instead of single-use cardboard containers per 1000 tonnes of produce delivered:
Energy demand – 64%, global warming potential – 31%, ozone depletion potential – 78%, water consumption – 80%, acidification – 66%, eutrophication – 66%, smog – 42%, solid waste generation – 86%.[vi] Savings not insignificant by all accounts.
Reusable plastic containers have a positive multiplier effect on the environment and society as the costs to manufacture the original containers are paid in full the first time the container is used and the savings are compounded every time a reusable container is cycled for another trip.
However, we are not naïve in the belief that these conclusions end the conversation right here. There’s a reason why cardboard is prevalent in our society today.
Corrugated cardboard is significantly lighter than a comparably sized, rigid, reusable container. Folded cardboard is absolutely a space saver for delivery, staging and recycling.
The cardboard box is also the ambassador of consumer-packaged goods with the ability to vibrantly display graphics on all sides if so desired.
At present day, most of our comparable reusable plastic containers would definitely fall short in these categories.
And finally, when we are finished using cardboard boxes, we have a well established and efficient waste management industry to collect these containers that disappear from our eyes and memory forever. Once the collection vehicle pulls away, the curtain is drawn and the rest of the story unfolds behind the scenes.
I am not here to tell you that recycling is bad. Quite the contrary. When comparing recycling activities to the adverse impacts that landfills create, recycling will always get a 10 and landfill a zero every time. Ironically, recycling is one of landfill’s biggest customers. [vii] The recycling mix and downstream markets of today is quite different than of years past. The emergence of convenience product packaging, the reduction of recycling staples like old newsprint and the severely diminished access to Asian markets have placed recycling systems in unsustainable territory.
Yet in the foreground, our most forward-thinking, single-use packaging companies and the corporate titans that use them are more focused than ever on energy, water, material and greenhouse gas and landfill use reductions (and in some ways making meaningful strides towards sustainability).
In partnership, waste management companies draped in green colours and green slogans have convinced us they have everything taken care of. Ordinary consumers are lulled to sleep and rest assured that they have done their part, yet the illusion is deeper, ironic and more pervasive than this.
The true financial and ecological costs of recycling and the environmental effects of landfilling are not currently borne by today’s consumers. The “tip fees” do not tell the whole story of how landfilling is contributing to climate change, nor is the story unfolding in any consequential manner in real time. This is contributing to an illusion that our recycling systems and the price we pay for goods can sustain our consumer appetites and their ecological effects.
The real damage in the immediate term is we have a disassociated populace and a general and wide spread paralysis on changing consumer habits when there is no immediate incentive (or deterrent) to promote changes in consumer and supply chain packaging.
However, the challenges ahead are not all bleak and limiting. In fact, they are opportunities we embrace.
At Container Pros, we have demonstrated that reusable plastic container systems work. Our customers tell us so every time they pay their bill. When all of the necessary components are in place like efficient systems, engaged customers and far ranging environmental benefits, we have a great story to tell on how our services are enabling the Circular Economy.
Our task is to continue to close the gap on what single-use, throw away packaging has to offer and transform our pattern of material use from Take, Make, Dispose to Take, Make and Reuse!
Container Pros – The Future is Now!
[i] 2014 Life Cycle Assessment of U.S. Average Corrugated Product, Final Report, dated May 23, 2017. National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. Page 18. Online: http://www.corrugated.org/wp-content/uploads/PDFs/LCA/NCASI_2014_LCA_Final.pdf
[ii] 2016 Ontario Residential Waste Diversion Rate. Resource Productivity & Recovery Authority. Online: https://rpra.ca/datacall/about-the-datacall/
[iii] 2014 Life Cycle Assessment of U.S. Average Corrugated Product, Final Report, dated May 23, 2017. National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. Page 170. Online: http://www.corrugated.org/wp-content/uploads/PDFs/LCA/NCASI_2014_LCA_Final.pdf
[iv] Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared to Substitutes in The United States and Canada. Prepared for The Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, by: Franklin Associates, A Division of Eastern Research Group. Page 14 Online: https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Reports-and-Publications/LCA-of-Plastic-Packaging-Compared-to-Substitutes.pdf
[v] Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable Plastic Containers and Display and Non-Display Ready Corrugated Containers Used for Fresh Produce Applications, dated February 2017. Prepared for IFCO Corporation, by: Franklin Associates, A Division of Eastern Research Group. Page 19 Online: https://cdn0.scrvt.com/f152d078e18222739495b38742ac2b85/cc5a5d129eb3c63b/829b9801e469/IFCO-RPC-Life-Cycle-Assessment_Feb2017_Executive-Summary.pdf
[vii] Many Canadians are recycling wrong, and it’s costing us millions. Emily Chung · CBC News · Posted: Apr 06, 2018 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: April 9. Online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/recycling-contamination-1.4606893