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Interview with Marcel Keuenhof, co-founder of Planet Reuse

Eliminating Single-Use Plastics in Restaurants; Lessons from France, Netherlands, and Germany.

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Eliminating Single-Use Plastics in Restaurants; Lessons from France, Netherlands, and Germany

What about eliminating single-use plastics in restaurants? The regulatory landscape in Europe is undergoing a profound transformation, marked by a substantial shift towards sustainability.

Notably, countries like France and the Netherlands have taken decisive measures, implementing a ban on single-use plastics and emphasizing the adoption of reusable packaging. Germany, too, has joined this sustainable trajectory with the introduction of the VerpackG, or Packaging Act, holding brand owners responsible for the end-of-life fate of their packaging.

If this legal evolution forced restaurants to switch to reusable packaging, this change have had enormous supply chain and economic impacts. What about the environmental impacts of anti-waste laws? How will it affect customer behavioral change regarding single-use products?

Marcel Keuenhof, co-founder of Planet Reuse

In this exclusive interview with Captain Forest, Marcel Keuenhof, co-founder of Planet Reuse, shared the lesson learned from France, Netherlands, and Germany, who recently banned single-use plastics in restaurants.

Q: Can you give us an overview of regulatory developments driving sustainable packaging in Europe?

The regulatory landscape, especially in Europe, is witnessing significant developments, marking a crucial shift towards sustainability.

Two distinct developments are shaping this transition.

Firstly, there’s a notable expansion in the application of extended producer responsibility (EPR), exemplified by Germany’s VerpackG or Packaging Act. This legislation compels brand owners to assume responsibility for the end-of-life packaging they introduce into the market.

Secondly, there’s a growing trend towards legislation promoting the transition from single-use plastics (SUP) to reusable packaging and bring-your-own (BYO) models. France and Germany have taken decisive steps in this direction, implementing bans on single-use plastics and advocating for reusable packaging solutions as of January 1, 2022, followed by the Netherlands one year later.

At the European Union level, the Single-Use Plastics Directive sets ambitious goals, requiring member states to significantly reduce single-use plastics with a target of collecting 90% of all beverage containers by 2029.

Deposit systems, commonly implemented in various European countries, are key to achieving this. These proven, effective systems are now being considered for broader applications, including food packaging.

Another impactful measure introduced by the EU is extended producer responsibility, which obligates producers of single-use plastics to bear the cost of collection and treatment of their products. Similar systems are already in place in countries like France, Belgium, and Germany, emphasizing the producers’ accountability for the life cycle of their packaging.

Though varying in execution, these regulatory interventions share a common thread—they compel brands to reevaluate their packaging strategies. Whether through recycling, reusability, or alternative materials, the focus is on ensuring that the packaging doesn’t end up as waste.

While the regulatory landscape is evolving, these initiatives represent positive steps toward fostering sustainability within the industry.

Q: What are the main environmental benefits and hindrances of the anti-waste law applied to restaurants, and how significant are they? 

The recent surge in anti-waste legislation, mainly focusing on reusable packaging transitioning of quick-serve restaurants & on-the-go consumption, signifies a profound shift towards a more sustainable and environmentally conscious approach. When we examine these laws more closely, we find both advantages and challenges that play key roles in shaping their overall impact.

Advantages of Anti-Waste Laws:

Reduction in Littering: 

The primary aim of these laws is a tangible decrease in littering, particularly addressing the pervasive issue of plastic waste.

By advocating for reusable packaging, mainly targeting lightweight materials like plastics, these laws directly combat environmental degradation caused by the wind and waterborne dispersion of such materials.

Environmental Impact Reduction: 

Beyond the visible reduction in litter, adopting reusable packaging systems actively curtails environmental impacts, often measured in carbon dioxide equivalence.

However, the actual environmental benefits are realized when these systems operate at scale, ensuring a significant volume of packages is efficiently returned and reintegrated into the reuse cycle.

Reduction in Dependence on Natural Resources: 

Anti-waste laws target decreasing dependence on natural resources. As a result, it positively impacts biodiversity and ecosystems by lessening the demand for raw materials.

Energy Conservation: 

These anti-waste laws also contribute to energy conservation by minimizing the need for raw material extraction and production from fossil fuels.

Creation of Jobs: 

An unexpected benefit lies in the potential job creation associated with implementing anti-waste laws. Various stages of the reusable packaging life cycle, from collection and transportation to the crucial cleaning and maintenance processes, present employment generation opportunities.

Challenges and Considerations of Anti-Waste Laws:

Systems optimization for efficiency: 

A significant challenge lies in ensuring the optimization of these systems for efficiency.

Inadequate optimization runs the risk of counter-productivity, potentially resulting in increased energy usage due to additional transportation needs and the energy-intensive washing processes associated with reusable packaging.

Water Usage Concerns: 

While the overall environmental benefits of reusable packaging are substantial, prudent management of water usage is crucial.

The cleaning process inherent in reusing packaging demands careful consideration to address potential environmental concerns linked to increased water consumption. However, it is important to bear in mind that recycling single-use items is also water (and energy) intensive.

Economic and Environmental Balance: 

Single-use plastics are cheaper for restaurants than reusable packaging. As a result, anti-waste laws had an economic impact on restaurant owners who needed to modify their supply chain and cover new expenses such as water or electricity.

Q: How have restaurateurs responded to the anti-waste law? And what are some of the most effective alternatives to disposable tableware that they have implemented?

In response to the evolving landscape of anti-waste laws, restaurateurs took two main directions at first. These laws predominantly target single-use plastic packaging, prompting a logical shift towards non-plastic single-use alternatives.

One prevalent strategy involves substituting plastic coffee cups with paper cups. However, it’s essential to note that paper cups often retain a plastic layer for waterproofing, introducing new environmental considerations.

Another notable approach is the adoption of alternatives like wooden cutlery, replacing plastic spoons and knives. While wooden options may seem eco-friendly, their heavier nature and reliance on tree resources raise questions about their environmental impact.

Then, anti-waste legislation mandated a significant shift in the provision of reusable packaging and required restaurateurs to offer a reusable option for customers, even for to-go orders.

For now, primarily large fast-food chains responded to the law by providing reusable packaging for in-house dining and reusable options for to-go orders upon customer request.

Q: What operational challenges did restaurant owners encounter in the transition to reusable packaging?

Transitioning to reusable packaging, especially for quick-serve restaurants, introduces operational challenges. Unlike the ease of single-use plastics, where businesses could simply replace them for each customer, reusable packaging demands a shift.

While plastics are cost-effective and mass-produced, reusable alternatives are pricier.

Cleaning reusable packaging becomes a hurdle for smaller quick-serve establishments without dishwashing stations. It necessitates choices like outsourcing cleaning or investing in equipment, consuming valuable space, time, and staff resources.

Logistically, getting reusable packaging back presents another challenge. Implementing measures like deposits may be necessary due to lower return rates. Lessons from existing systems, such as beer bottles in the Netherlands or Germany’s plastic crates, stress the importance of a minimum 90% return rate for efficiency and overall benefits.

The concept of a to-go meal revolves around taking food and leaving, limiting control for smaller restaurants to recover packaging. This challenge is more apparent in open environments than closed systems like festivals, where control measures are more feasible.

For a successful transition, a change in consumer behavior is paramount. Returning packaging must become the new norm, with consumers expecting to save and return packaging.

A system incorporating deposits for to-go packaging, even with a small value, is essential to ensure the recovery of the items, including during festivals.

Q: Does substituting single-use plastic with reusable plastic cups solve the underlying plastic pollution problem?

Whether we’re solving the problem depends on how you define the problem.

Littering as the Problem

If the problem we are solving is lettering, then using reusable plastic cups solves the problem.

For example, reusable cup systems, a requirement at numerous festivals, have proven instrumental in substantially curbing littering.

Instances from the Netherlands, Germany, Estonia and Belgium highlight the impact of legislation mandating the adoption of reusable cups during such events.

Plastic Usage as the Problem

Despite the success in mitigating littering, the transition to reusable plastic cups may not provide an immediate solution to the broader issue of plastic usage.

Q: Wouldn’t a bring-your-own-container system be a more environmentally friendly solution?

Carrying reusable boxes and cups for meal takeout has gained traction in recent years, but it remains confined to a minuscule portion of society.

Adopting this system can grow, but its expansion might take time because it’s a journey toward reshaping consumer behavior and redefining societal norms.

If the bring-your-own-container system is normalized and generalized to the entire population, it will be an optimal environmentally friendly solution.

Replacing single-use plastics with reusable plastics partially solves plastic pollution by reducing littering and improving recycling quality.

Q : Are there any high – or low-tech innovations in the food service industry that could further reduce plastic and packaging waste, and how likely are they to be adopted?

Undoubtedly, there are several advancements happening in sustainable materials. One of the most intriguing advancements revolves around introducing novel materials that prioritize sustainable sourcing and revolutionize end-of-life treatment.

For instance, the emergence of biobased plastics is gaining traction.

Plastics, derived from biological sources such as plants, present a noteworthy stride away from fossil fuels. The compatibility of biobased plastics with existing plastic production systems is particularly noteworthy. Unlike other innovations that demand new technologies, biobased plastics seamlessly integrate into current plastic manufacturing facilities—a commendable aspect of their versatility.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge that while biodegradable plastics exhibit accelerated environmental degradation compared to traditional plastics, they don’t entirely resolve the litter issue. Despite breaking down more swiftly, they may only partially disappear.

Another pivotal development centers around the increased utilization of recycled content in packaging. Brands want to incorporate recycled materials into their packaging, a trend further propelled by regulatory frameworks.

Take, for instance, the single-use plastics directive, mandating member states to ensure that 25% of PET bottles contain recycled content by 2025. As a result, it not only compels brands to seek recycled content actively but also necessitates investments in recycling infrastructure to make such content readily available.

The evolution of more circular materials represents yet another noteworthy trend. These materials aren’t merely recycled but can undergo multiple recycling cycles.

A prime example is the ongoing progress in chemical recycling, where plastics can be broken down into chemical building blocks (monomers), facilitating their reuse in manufacturing new polymers.

Regarding low-tech solutions, the most obvious is the bring-your-own container system. However, this solution requires a shift in consumer behavior for a more significant proportion of the population.

Q: What incentivizes businesses to adopt sustainability?

A recurring theme emerges when examining brands embracing reusable packaging: a solid commitment to sustainability.

Some brands actively engage in sustainable practices, using eco-friendly ingredients, responsible sourcing, or alternative packaging materials. This intrinsic motivation to contribute positively to the environment is a driving force.

In addition to embracing reusable packaging, brands frequently integrate sustainability into their narratives with a desire to engage consumers on environmental topics. In the competitive food market, such commitments become a unique selling point, attracting a specific audience actively seeking environmentally conscious choices.

Aside from ethical or branding considerations, businesses are increasingly driven by financial and legal imperatives to embrace sustainability. Economically, reusable packaging offers the advantage of reducing costs per use cycle. Moreover, with reuse targets outlined in EU directives, a legal impetus is compelling businesses to transition towards reuse practices.


Eliminating single-use plastics in restaurants is crucial to solving the global plastic pollution crisis. Some European countries have taken steps by legally imposing the elimination of single-use plastics through anti-waste laws.

The advantages of these anti-waste laws applied to restaurants are evident—reduced littering, environmental impact mitigation, job creation, decreased reliance on natural resources, and energy conservation. However, challenges such as system optimization, water usage concerns, and the delicate balance between economic feasibility and environmental sustainability must be addressed.

As the restaurant industry responds to these laws, the effectiveness of alternatives, including reusable options and material substitutions, will be crucial in solving the plastic pollution issue.

The journey toward sustainability in the food service industry is multifaceted, involving legal compliance, operational adjustments, and, ultimately, a reshaping of consumer behavior towards a more environmentally friendly ethos.

Marcel Keuenhof, co-founder of Planet Reuse

Marcel Keuenhof is an industrial design engineer by education, specializing in packaging technology. For the last five years, he has been focusing on supporting the transition from single-use to reusable packaging. In 2022, he set up, with like-minded individuals & organizations from France & Germany, the not-for-profit and freely accessible online platform Planet Reuse, which showcases reuse solutions, studies & articles, and events and organizes webinars, community meetings, and knowledge exchange between solution providers, FMCG companies, municipalities, legislators, NGO’s and knowledge institutes.


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