Come round again soon

A mandate for multiple-use containers will soon take effect in the food service industry in Germany. But the topic of the circular economy isn’t relevant only for legal reasons. Rebecca Tauer, Program Lead Circular Economy at WWF Germany, explains why.

To go cup

A mandate for multiple-use containers will soon take effect in the food service industry in Germany. As of 1 January 2023, enterprises with at least 80 square metres of floor space and five or more employees will be required to offer their customers the option of multiple-use containers for food and beverages sold for delivery or to go. They won’t be permitted to charge more for portions in reusable containers than for those in single-use packaging. Reusable cups must be available for all sizes of drinks offered to go. But the topic of the circular economy isn’t relevant only for legal reasons. Rebecca Tauer, Program Lead Circular Economy at WWF Germany, explains why.

‘Circular economy’ – what does that term describe?

An economic system that conserves resources and products as long as possible. In part, this means the intensive use of products through sharing and their continued utilisation in multiple-use and secondary-use solutions. Further aspects include repair and remanufacturing, as well as the avoidance of the use of resources in the first place.

Why is this way of doing business important?

It isn’t just important – it’s essential. We’re overexploiting our earth’s capacities. This year, the annual Earth Overshoot Day came on 28 July, as early as it has ever come before. This means that we’re destroying the basis of our own life on this planet. Other buzzwords include emissions, water stress and biodiversity stress. The circular economy, on the other hand, is a sustainable economic system. This is emphasised by the current political situation, with regard to dependencies on commodity imports from other countries. Circular measures can help to counter this.

About ... Rebecca Trauer

Rebecca Trauer leads the Circular Economy Program of the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) Germany. She provides consultation and information on, among other topics, the transformation to a sustainable economy.

What role does the food service industry play in this?

Every hour, in Germany alone, 520,000 disposable boxes and bowls are used for pizza, salads and other food that’s ordered for delivery or to go – a mountain of waste totalling 120,000 tonnes per year. Restaurateurs can make a positive contribution with quick alternatives. Some restaurant and catering customers are also already asking for reusable solutions. So, proactively communicated offerings serve the needs of environmentally conscious customers while also enhancing the profile of the respective companies as trailblazers for sustainable solutions. And studies indicate that multiple-use systems also bring financial benefits.

In what way?

In principle, they eliminate the costs for single-use packaging. The risk of materials or disposable products becoming the target of new taxes – or even banned – disappears. However, multiple-use solutions also mean added logistical effort – so they bring their own added costs. But various studies have looked at this. The Fraunhofer Institute determined that reusable solutions can become economically competitive vis-á-vis disposable solutions from as early as the fifth cycle, and can become an actual advantage after around 50 usages. Another international study found that switching to multiple-use solutions was financially worthwhile for all the restaurant businesses it examined.

What hurdles are there?

Restaurant operators have to make logistical changes, because customers can choose to receive their orders in either single- or multiple-use containers. Businesses have to organize the collection and washing of the containers. Questions of hygiene have to be answered and the relevant background information has to be widely communicated. Different providers of reusable solutions organise logistics and returns somewhat differently. It would be good to discuss ways of standardising these processes. And information about multiple-use offerings needs to be brought to consumers clearly and proactively.

Does a joint solution involving multiple participating businesses offer advantages over solutions implemented by individual restaurants?

Shared solutions facilitate the implementation of multiple-use systems: the fewer systems there are, the simpler the process is. In addition, this consolidation can result in reduced costs and lower environmental impact.

Do digital technologies help here?

Yes, by organising the cycle better and more efficiently – for example, through registration or through the use of QR codes for the return of the used containers. That helps in identifying the whereabouts of the containers and increasing the return rate. Data on the containers’ service life and frequency of use additionally help in planning the production of new containers well in advance, in returning materials to the cycle and in optimising multiple-use offerings through the analysis of customer behaviour.

Do you have a good example of a circular model?

Plenty of them! In the beverage industry, bottle deposits have been used for years. Many hotels have now significantly reduced their use of disposable products by serving breakfast in multiple-use containers, introducing soap dispensers in bathrooms or providing water dispensers instead of disposable bottles. In logistics as well, multiple-use systems for fruit boxes, pallets and containers are firmly established and their advantages have been proven.

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