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Shaping the world's future: A contribution on re-usable packaging for Earth Overshoot Day

Today, 2nd August 2023, marks a critical point for our planet and its resources. It is Earth Overshoot Day, a date that signifies when humanity's demand for ecological resources and services exceeds what Earth can regenerate within that yearThis day serves as a stark reminder of the increasing strain we are putting on our planet and underlines the urgency to transition to more sustainable economies and lifestyles.

In this discourse, the focus is on the concept of using reusable containers as transport packaging. This notion is not without its controversy and requires thoughtful deliberation. The packaging industry, along with logistics, constantly grapples with finding the perfect packaging solution that balances efficiency, cost, and sustainability. It is essential to remember that no one-size-fits-all solution exists and the quest for the most sustainable option should be a continuous process. I welcome all perspectives on this matter, including challenging ones, as they contribute to a richer understanding of the issue at hand.


The production and consumption of plastic packaging have been under scrutiny due to a number of pertinent factors. plastic packaging is heavily reliant on finite resources, causing significant strain on our planet's limited supply. The high rate of consumption and disposal of plastic packaging is unsustainable in the long term, given the slow rate at which these materials decompose. Furthermore, the recycling rates for plastic packaging remain alarmingly low, leading to an accumulation of plastic waste. The potential effects on health related to plastic packaging cannot be overlooked. Many plastic packages, and specially plastic transport packaging, could  release additives and microplastics upon degradation and abrasion. These substances can infiltrate our food and water systems, posing potential health risks.



On 30th November 2022, the European Commission revealed the second part of its Circular Economy package, which included a proposal for a revised Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) [1]. This initiative forms a part of the Commission's ambitious strategy to create a more sustainable and resource-efficient economy in Europe. The proposed revisions to the PPWR are aimed at accelerating the transition towards a circular economy, where waste is minimized and resources are used as efficiently as possible.

This proposal aims to encourage the application of reusable shipping packaging in the e-commerce sector, along with other domains. The concept of reusability is primarily associated with plastic shipping packaging in the present context. The ubiquity of plastic in our society poses significant environmental challenges. Concurrently, we are witnessing a decline in the use of corrugated board, a material known for its high recyclability and eco-friendly qualities. This displacement is raising concerns about the sustainability of our packaging practices. Moreover, while sustainable reusable packaging is increasingly recognized as a viable solution, it is still in the nascent stages of development.


Despite the growing emphasis on sustainability and recycling in the industrial sector, corrugated packaging remains exempt from the reuse quota proposed for the movement of industrial goods. This exemption is currently under scrutiny, with considerable pressure being applied by various lobbying groups to have it removed.


Decoding the Dependency: How Plastic Packaging Currently Leverages Finite Resources

In light of World Overshoot Day, the focus is primarily on resource consumption. Plastic Europe, an association of plastic producers that is unsuspected of hostility towards plastic, itself acknowledges that most plastics today are still produced from fossil-based feedstock. This is a significant concern considering the environmental implications of extensive fossil fuel usage and the urgency to shift to more sustainable production methods. In 2021, a staggering 90.2% of the world's plastic production was fossil-based. This data underscores the heavy reliance of the global plastics industry on non-renewable resources, despite increasing awareness of the environmental consequences and growing calls for sustainability. In contrast, post-consumer recycled plastics and bio-based/bio-attributed plastics accounted for only a small fraction of world plastic production - 8.3% and 1.5% respectively[2].


Even in Europe, the recycling quotas are low. The European plastics industry has been a significant contributor to the continent's economy, but its reliance on traditional manufacturing practices has remained high. In 2021, European plastics production reached a significant 57.2 million tonnes (Mt), highlighting the scale and importance of this sector. Post-consumer recycled plastics accounted for only 10.1% of the total European plastics production in 2021. This indicates that while recycling is slowly gaining traction, there is still a long way to go to achieve a circular economy in the plastics sector in Europe. The low percentage suggests that recycling infrastructure, regulations, and consumer behavior need to be further improved to enhance the recycling rate [3].


It is noteworthy to observe that even prolific oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia have acknowledged the limits of petroleum reserves. They have embarked on a strategic initiative, known as the Vision 2030 [4] program, to lessen their reliance on these finite resources. This forward-thinking approach is aimed at ensuring a sustainable and diversified economy that does not solely hinge on hydrocarbon extraction.


The Saudi Arabian government has recently taken significant steps [5] to limit plastic consumption within its borders, as part of a larger initiative towards environmental sustainability. This move has subsequently brought attention to the potential of paper and cardboard as viable alternative materials.


Corrugated board has established itself as a preferred choice for transport packaging in Europe, primarily due to its foundation on renewable resources. Its eco-friendliness is further bolstered by the fact that it is highly recyclable, contributing to a significant reduction in waste.


Additionally, there are several other compelling reasons that make corrugated board an advantageous option for transport packaging. These aspects range from cost-effectiveness to lower CO2-Emissions in several scenarios, and are detailed in the report provided by the European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers (FEFCO - European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers) [6]. The report underscores the benefits of recycling over reuse in the context of packaging, reinforcing the value proposition of corrugated board. However, for the corrugated board packaging industry, recycling is not merely an aspiration but an already implemented and thriving practice. The industry has effectively integrated recycling into its operations, achieving remarkable levels of sustainability and environmental responsibility.


The latest data from Eurostat [7] presents a stark contrast in recycling rates among different packaging materials in the European Union. The figures reveal that for paper and cardboard packaging the recycling rate is a commendable 81.5% across the 27 EU countries in 2020. This high recycling rate for paper and cardboard packaging underscores a significant commitment to sustainability and resource efficiency within the bloc. However, the same cannot be said for plastic packaging, which has a significantly lower recycling rate of just 37.6%. It is worth noting that this figure is largely skewed by the high recycling rates of disposable PET bottles. This implies that the recycling rates for reusable plastic packaging, which will form a considerable portion of the overall plastic waste, are likely even lower.


However, an often-overlooked aspect of the re-usable plastic packaging  is the necessity for more reusable packaging to be produced than the actual packaging function requires, due to the handling and processing involved. This means that even as we move towards more eco-friendly practices, we find ourselves in a paradox where we may be inadvertently contributing to the problem we aim to solve.


These challenges need to be addressed through careful planning, innovative thinking, and sustainable practices to ensure that our efforts to reduce waste do not lead to a higher consumption of finite resources.


Need for Resilience: How Plastic Transport Packaging Withstands Extreme Stress in Complex logistics Scenarios

In the logistics industry, the demands on packaging materials are particularly stringent due to the rigorous conditions they are subjected to. One of the most critical requirements is that plastics used for transport packaging must exhibit high durability. This high standard is necessary because these materials need to withstand substantial loads during transport. They are often stacked and packed tightly, which puts them under consistent and significant stress. Therefore, the strength of these plastics is paramount to ensure the integrity and safety of the goods being transported.


Another vital requirement for these plastics pertains to their resilience to sunlight exposure. Often, transport packages are left outdoors, subjecting them to prolonged periods of sunlight. This continuous exposure leads to the degradation of many materials, causing them to become brittle over time. For plastics used in transport packaging, they must resist this brittleness to maintain their structural stability and continue protecting the items they encase. Moreover, the transport and handling processes inevitably cause abrasion on these plastics. This is particularly true in the logistics industry where packages are frequently moved, loaded, and unloaded. The friction caused during these operations can wear down materials over time and generates microplastic. Therefore, it's essential that these plastics have a high resistance to abrasion to ensure their longevity.


The increasing complexity of plastic formulations is a consequence of the growing demands placed on transport packaging. To ensure the performance and durability of these packages, various additives such as antioxidants, light stabilizers, plasticizers, flame retardants, pigments and others are used. These additives give plastic packaging the properties needed to withstand transportation conditions, including resistance to physical stress, temperature fluctuations, UV radiation and other environmental factors. However, the inclusion of these additives in plastic formulations adds complexity to the recycling of plastic waste. The different types of additives can affect the efficiency of the recycling processes and lead to a deterioration in the quality of the recycled material. In addition, some of these additives, such as flame retardants and certain pigments, may contain potentially harmful substances that can pose environmental and health risks if not disposed of or recycled properly.


Detailed analysis of these substances reveals a worrying picture. Out of the 7,000+ chemicals scrutinised, a significant number of them - 3,200 to be precise - have been catalogued as potentially harmful in the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 2023 report titled 'Chemicals in Plastics: A Technical Report' [8]. This comprehensive report serves as an eye-opener to the potential hazards concealed within the everyday use of plastics. These identified chemicals of concern present potential adverse impacts on both human health and overall environmental well-being. The breadth and depth of these impacts are still not being fully understood but it is clear that this issue warrants urgent attention and action. The findings underscored in UNEP’s report highlight the pressing need for further research into these associated chemicals, their prevalence in various types of plastics, exposure pathways and ultimately, their potential effects on human health and the environment. In conclusion, the extensive use of plastics intertwined with thousands of chemical substances underscores a significant public health and environmental concern.


In addition to the known sources of microplastic pollution, such as cosmetic products, clothing, and single used packaging materials, another significant source is the abrasion of durable plastic transport packaging during transport. This can occur in various ways. For instance, when goods are transported over long distances, they are subjected to constant movement and friction. This can lead to the release of tiny plastic particles from the packaging materials.

These microplastics can contaminate the environment as they are carried away by wind or water, posing a threat to both land and aquatic ecosystems. The rise of e-commerce has further exacerbated this issue. As more and more consumers rely on online shopping for their daily needs, the volume of goods being transported by re-usable plastic packaging would be increased. Consequently, the amount of microplastics released through abrasion during transport is also expected to rise. Furthermore, the end consumer is also exposed to the associated risks. Unbeknownst to many, these microplastics can adhere to the products that we purchase online, released from the re-use packaging and make their way into our homes and bodies.


As mentioned by the UNEP [9] this risc is higher by durable transport packaging due to the additvies used. The additives used in durable transport packaging can pose considerable risks. These additives are often chemicals that are added to enhance the performance characteristics of the packaging, such as improving its strength, flexibility, or resistance to UV light or heat. While these enhancements can improve the functionality and longevity of the packaging, they also have potential drawbacks.



In the current packaging industry, corrugated packaging has emerged as the preferred choice for transport packaging. This preference is not unconnected with its numerous benefits, particularly its environmental friendliness. Unlike plastic packaging, corrugated packaging is based on renewable resources, making it a sustainable option in the face of increasing global environmental concerns. The key composition of corrugated packaging is paper pulp, a renewable resource that can be regenerated over time unlike fossil fuels used in the production of plastics. This makes corrugated packaging a more environmentally friendly option, as it reduces the demand for non-renewable resources and decreases the associated environmental impact. In addition to its renewable nature, corrugated packaging stands out for its recyclability. The quality of recycling for corrugated packaging is notably high compared to other materials. This means that even after its initial use, the material can be recovered and processed into new products, further extending its lifecycle and reducing waste. Furthermore, an additional advantage of corrugated packaging lies in its safety.


Unlike plastic packaging, it does not release harmful substances or microplastics into the environment. Microplastics are tiny particles that not only pollute our ecosystems but also pose a threat to human and animal health. By using corrugated packaging, businesses not only provide secure transport for their products but also contribute to a safer and cleaner environment. In conclusion, the adoption of corrugated packaging is an effective step towards sustainable practices in the packaging industry. Its use offers a triple benefit; it is based on renewable resources, it can be recycled to a high degree of quality, and it does not release harmful substances or microplastics into the environment. As such, corrugated packaging is not just the transport packaging of choice at the moment; it is also a choice that supports our collective responsibility towards environmental sustainability.


The implementation of reusable plastic packaging necessitates significant investment in the recycling infrastructure and continued enhancement of compounds to mitigate associated risks. Moreover, a large portion of investment needs to be directed towards the development and refinement of compounds used in the manufacturing of reusable plastics. These compounds must be designed to withstand multiple use cycles without compromising the quality and safety of the product. Furthermore, they must also be engineered to reduce potential environmental impact during their production and disposal stages.


Thomas Walther

Corporate Strategy and Innovation Baumer hhs



[2] Plastic- the facts 2022

[3] Plastic- the facts 2022

[4] ).