Policymakers are currently deliberating on packaging reuse targets in the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). But do they have the necessary evidence to make those decisions for all packaged products? A systematic review of 159 relevant scientific studies on packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods — milk, juices, nectars and plant-based drinks — suggests there is a clear gap in holistic impact assessment knowledge.
Packaging of perishable liquid foods exists in various forms such as aseptic paper-based beverage cartons or non-aseptic solutions such as plastic or glass bottles. Each packaging solution has an impact on the quality, safety and shelf life of the food it contains. In assessing packaging solutions, efforts should be made to understand the wider context of reuse targets for perishable liquid foods, with consideration for packaging types, food security, food safety, food waste and environmental impacts.
However, in both research and policy contexts, packaging is still often considered separately from its contents in impact assessments, despite an existing body of knowledge and evidence showing that food and its packaging should be treated as an integrated unit.
Consequently, policymakers served only with evidence of packaging impacts could be misled and make inaccurate decisions when discussing the measures included in the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). This risks undermining the EU’s Green Deal ambitions.
The importance of the analysis
One of the primary objectives of the proposed PPWR is to ensure that “all packaging in the EU is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030”, in line with the EU Green Deal and the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. Setting reusable packaging targets was always likely to spark a robust debate with the food industry. The European food system uses a large amount of packaging and the use of single-use packaging in particular has grown significantly in the past decades. For perishable liquid foods, producers today prefer recyclable single-use packaging — such as aseptic beverage cartons — for the sale of 75 percent of milk, 59 percent of juices and a major share of plant-based drinks in the EU.
With a specific focus on the 154 billion liters of perishable liquid foods produced in the EU each year, a more fundamental question occurred to the Packaging Logistics division in the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University. We wondered if a sufficient body of evidence existed to help policymakers make packaging reuse decisions, so we undertook a comprehensive and systematic analysis of all identifiable studies on single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods.
The scale of the knowledge gap that we uncovered was eye-opening.
Findings from the study
Based on an analysis of 159 identified scientific papers, we came to three main conclusions.
First, the research and knowledge of food waste for single-use packaging compared to reusable packaging alternatives for perishable liquid foods was clearly insufficient. No studies were found that evaluated reusable packaging for such foods in relation to food waste, consequently no studies were found comparing single-use packaging with reusable packaging in this regard. A few studies were found that evaluated different single-use packaging alternatives in terms of the packaging and the liquid food being contained, finding that multilayer carton packages had the lowest environmental impact. Most environmentally-focused studies on food packaging did not consider the food saved or wasted.
Second, there were few studies comparing reusable and single-use packaging for perishable liquid foods in terms of food safety and quality. Instead, the majority of sampled papers simply provided insights and evidence for critical factors to be considered in food production and supply chain handling to keep liquid foods safe and of sufficient quality. This analysis surfaced several challenges related to reusable packaging, some related to food safety and others to quality limitations. For example, some studies pointed out quality-related challenges from plastic refillable bottles, such as the absorption of chemicals from previous use.
Finally, while there were many papers addressing shelf life as a critical aspect for perishable liquid foods — and many that empirically provided evidence of lower food waste in retail and at the consumer stage when shelf life is prolonged — there were still sizable knowledge gaps. No studies were found that compared the shelf life of single-use versus reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods. None were found that evaluated the shelf life of reusable packaging for such foods in relation to food waste, and none were found that clarified what optimal shelf life is for different products.
In our view, the key knowledge gaps at this time are: evidence of food waste impacts for reusable alternatives, so that a comparison with recyclable single-use packaging is possible; comparative studies on food safety and quality impacts through using single-use and reusable alternatives; shelf life comparisons; impact assessments that also take into account climate and land-use impacts; and, most importantly, food packaging studies that take into account the product that the packaging contains and protects.
Key knowledge gaps need to be addressed
Policymakers should be insisting on accessing a more holistic knowledge base built on assessment of impact, before they finalize reusable packaging targets in the PPWR.
A more holistic perspective is crucial to help policymakers avoid measures that might miss higher environmental gains, compromise consumers’ health and wellbeing, and reconfigure the packaging industry. Further knowledge might indicate that reusable packaging for perishable liquid foods is feasible under specific circumstances. However, the evidence we have today suggests that greater food safety, food security and food quality could be achieved by increasing the use of recyclable single-use packaging. Support for that choice is already demonstrated today through the packaging chosen by the majority of European milk, juice and plant-based drink producers.
 Perishable foods are defined in EU legislation under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 as foods which, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health.
 AIJN, Liquid Fruit Market Report, 2018, p.7 https://aijn.eu/files/attachments/.598/2018_Liquid_Fruit_Market_Report.pdf
 Key figures on the European food chain, Eurostat, 2021