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Life cycle assessment of the current recycling system and an alternative reuse system for bottles in Norway

Packaging is one of the focus areas of EU’s new circular economy action plan which is one of the main building blocks of the European green deal. As a result, packaging, including beverage packaging, has been targeted as one of the areas with the highest potential for circularity. In Norway, Infinitum, has for more than 20 years been running a highly successful national deposit return scheme for beverage packaging. In 1999, they started the single-use system consisting of single-use PET bottles and single-use aluminium cans. The cans and bottles are returned by the consumers through reverse vending machines and the collection rate for the Norwegian system is high: in 2021, the average collection rate for aluminium cans and PET bottles returned to retailer and collected for recycling was 91.6% and 93.3%.

The goal of this study is to compare Infinitum’s deposit system for single-use PET bottles and aluminium cans with an alternative system for reusable PET and glass bottles to assess under what circumstances these systems become environmentally preferable relative to each other. The study is based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology and the results are presented for four environmental impact categories.

A discussion group, consisting of Infinitum, NORSUS and other organizations with expertise in reuse and recycling systems for bottles and cans have been constructed to ensure credibility of the results. The aim of this group was to ensure the quality and representativeness of the systems being modelled and the data applied.

The functional unit is defined as: Production, collection and waste treatment of beverage containers and distribution packaging representing the market mix of containers used for distributing 1000 litres of beverage to Norwegian consumers.

The conclusion from the study is that the single-use system performs better than the reuse system for the three impact categories; climate change, cumulative energy demand (CED) and terrestrial acidification, while the reuse system performs best for the impact category mineral resource scarcity.
PET bottles perform best in both systems. The reuse system has higher transport-related impacts than the single-use system for all impact categories analysed. The back-to-market return rate is crucial for calculating the average number of uses per bottle in the reuse system, and the study has documented the importance of considering realistic back-to-market rates by including all potential losses throughout the value chain.

Three different recycling modelling principles have been applied in order to address how these affect the results and conclusion: the Cut-off, the CFF (Circular Footprint Formula) and the System expansion_net scrap approaches.
The ranking of the systems regarding environmental performance is not affected by the choice of modelling approach. Still, the choice of modelling approach affects the calculated performance for each system. For the single-use system, the System expansion_net scrap approach clearly gives the best result for all the assessed impact categories while the CFF approach gives lowest impact for the reuse system. The study clearly shows that the single-use system is more sensitive to the different modelling principles compared to the reuse system, which is logic because it has a bigger material throughput being affected by recycling.

Sensitivity analyses have been caried out for climate change. They show that the single-use system outperforms the reuse system (as analysed in the main analysis) until its recycled content decreases to 20%. Furthermore, the reuse system must reach a collection rate near 100% in order to be able to compete with the single-use system (as analysed in the main analysis with 93% collection rate)

The study has been designed to represent Norwegian conditions with relatively long transport distances. A potential reuse system with more local sited breweries and sorting/washing facilities would give shorter transport distances which affects the related transport burdens. It is therefore important that studies are designed with realistic assumptions, and the results in this specific study should not be interpreted as valid for reuse systems in general. A lot of effort has been put on obtaining representative data and assumptions for the systems, and sensitivity analyses have been performed. However, there are still issues and aspects which could have been analysed, such as changing to biofuel and/or electrified transport, reducing the bottle weights and increasing the amount of recycled content in the reuse system. It will always be difficult to predict the future, and more detailed data and additional sensitivity analyses could have given added value to the study