From Disposable To Reusable

A standardized reusable system in the take-away sector to reduce plastic

In Germany, 770 metric tons of waste are generated every day by disposable takeaway packaging (Die Bundesregierung). The amount of packaging waste had been rising steadily within the last ten years. With the pandemic, it is to be feared that this quantity will now temporarily continue to rise. Even before the pandemic, 320,000 disposable cups were used every hour in Germany – most of them made of plastic (tagesschau). While the deposit system for plastic bottles in Germany is a smart way to implement reusable plastic into the cycle, more plastic also means a large consumption of fossil resources. Bottles made of PET are extracted from crude oil or natural gas, destroyed after a single use and then sent for recycling. However, most returned bottles are used for the production of fibers, film products or bottles in the non-food sector. Additionally, most disposable packaging is either made of a material that is difficult to recycle or cannot be recycled due to contamination with food waste. As a result, most disposable waste in the takeaway sector is incinerated, posing an increasing environmental risk (NABU)

In Germany, the federal government has responded to the waste problem in the takeaway sector with an amendment to the law: Since July this year, the manufacture and trade of disposable plastic products such as disposable cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws and stirrers are banned throughout the EU – this also applies to to-go cups and disposable food containers made of Styrofoam. More environmentally friendly containers made of cardboard or forks made of cornstarch are now frequently replacing their plastic predecessors, but they still end up in the trash. Which is why deposit systems for takeaway containers are currently being tested in restaurants, cafés, and catering companies in several major German cities. Additionally, a new law stipulates that from 2022 deposit will be extended to reusable containers for take-away food and beverages and for ordering, which in future will help to avoid waste, save raw materials, and protect the environment. The proportion of recycled plastic is also to be increased: from 2025 to at least 25%, and from 2030 to at least 30 percent for all beverage bottles made of single-use plastic. Finally, from 2023, caterers, delivery services and restaurants throughout the EU will also be required to offer reusable containers for takeaway food and beverages in addition to disposable containers; there will be an exception for small businesses, such as snack bars (Die Bundesregierung).

This reduction in packaging waste would not only be good for the environment, but also for municipal finances: Removing waste from public spaces costs around 700 million euros a year (VKU). In terms of life cycle assessment, reusable containers also perform significantly better if they can be used to replace disposable packaging and the production process thus quickly pays for itself (utopia).

In the case of reusable systems, a distinction can be made between classic deposit systems and app-based, free reusable systems.

reusable packaging

Germany’s largest deposit system for the catering industry with over 8,800 dispensing points is reCup. Founded in 2016, the company offers reusable to-go cups as well as bowls. The Munich-based company is taking its cue from the German bottle deposit system to make it accessible to the masses as an analog reusable system: Drinks and food can be ordered without registration or data entry in the RECUPs and REBOWLs for a deposit of five and ten euros, respectively. RECUPs or REBOWLs can be returned throughout Germany at partners such as Shell, Alnatura, McDonalds, Aral, Sodexo, Aramark or Bio Company. In this way, the entry barriers for both partners and users are kept as low as possible, and access is made available to all ages and social classes. The company’s aim is to make disposable packaging obsolete, raise awareness of the issue of packaging waste and encourage people to rethink their consumption habits. The 100% recyclable containers are microwaveable, dishwasher safe and free of BPA and harmful substances. They are produced in Germany and made of polypropylene (PP), a material that can be kept in the cycle of a deposit system for a very long time; one REBOWL can withstand at least 200 rinses and thus replaces 200 disposable packages; one RECUP can be reused up to 1000 times. In addition, PP has comparably low energy consumption and high recyclability compared to manufacturing and recycling conditions of alternative materials (Presseportal, reCup).

reCIRCLE Germany follows a similar approach. The company with 2,100 partners, 450 of them in Germany, offers reusable bowls, cups and cutlery for take away for a ten-euro deposit. The leak-proof plastic boxes, made of high-quality PBT and PP, without BPA plasticizers and free of harmful substances, can be returned to any participating restaurant to either receive the deposit back or exchange the used box for a fresh one when ordering again. Thanks to the addition of 30% glass fiber, the containers are robust, protected against cuts and can be used up to 1,000 rinsing cycles or 200 uses. The company is currently working on an additional reusable packaging for pizza (utopia, reCIRCLE).

Vytal is a digital reusable system for takeaway food and food deliveries that works via app. Unlike reCup or reCIRCLE, there is no deposit or other fee for the reusable containers. A map in the app shows which participating restaurants are nearby; with a QR-code, the food can then be received in a BPA-free reusable bowl which must be returned to a participating restaurant within 14 days of ordering, otherwise a fee of ten euros will be charged. The environmentally friendly and long-lasting material can be rinsed at least 500 times and is certified with the German eco label Blue Angel.
Another app-based reusable system is Relevo. An interactive map shows which restaurants, bistros and cafés in the vicinity are participating. The BPA-free bowls and cups are scanned by a QR-code, no deposit is charged, but the containers must be returned to any of the 300 participating partners within two weeks, after which you will be charged ten euros per bowl or five euros per cup. The app also offers an overview of currently borrowed cups and bowls as well as a dashboard on Zero Waste Impact. The containers are made in Germany and reusable up to a thousand times ( utopia, Vytal, Relevo).

reusable packaging
Tiffin Loop

Tiffin Loop provides an alternative to the reusable plastic container: the company’s reusable container is made of stainless steel and does not use plastic. Compared to plastic, the production of stainless steel consumes a lot of energy, but after a certain number of circulations, it has a similar eco-balance to a plastic container. Additionally, stainless steel containers are robust and can be stacked, thus taking up little space. The app shows all participating partners nearby. The food is received via QR-code with a deposit of ten euros. After 14 days, the box must be returned via QR-code, otherwise 20 euros will be charged (rbb24, Tiffin Loop).

Of course, disposable cups are more convenient than reusable containers that have to be stored somewhere until they are returned, however, a standardized reusable system in the take-away sector would be an enormous step on the road to plastic reduction and, in proportion, then perhaps worth a little less convenience. 


By Marie Klimczak

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