Reuse and recycling are the two key strategies to move towards circularity, as reported last month. But several issues arise when assessing the environmental impacts or benefits of applying these strategies. How do these burdens or benefits can be shared between the product being recycled and the next product that will use the recycled material for its manufacturing? What is the quality of the recycled material versus the virgin one? Is there downcycling?

In this regard, the European Commission has worked on these issues and has developed the so-called Circular Footprint Formula (CCF). This formula defines the rule to allocate the environmental burdens or benefits of recycling, reusing or recovering energy between, for example, the supplier and the user of recycled materials. Since the current article focuses on Reusable Plastic Crates (RPCs), and recycling is the most common end-of-life of RPCs, this article only discusses the material aspect of the CFF.

Concerning materials, the CFF considers three types of materials for a product: the virgin (primary) and the recycled (secondary) materials used for the manufacturing, and the recycled material that results from the recycling process of a product. Since the CFF aims at allocating the environmental burdens or benefits among these three materials, the formula (see Figure) can be divided in three parts:



Figure: Diagram of the life cycle of an RPC and the Circular Footprint Formula for RPCs. Some abbreviations not explained in the text: Erecycled (emissions and resources consumed from the recycling process of the recycled material, including collection, sorting and transportation process); ErecEoL (emissions and resources consumed from the recycling process at the end of life, including collection, sorting and transportation process; Ev (emissions and resources consumed from the acquisition and pre-processing of virgin material); E*v (emissions and resources consumed from the acquisition and pre-processing of virgin material assumed to be substituted by recyclable materials).

The first one, in orange, is related to the emissions and resources used (the so called life cycle inventory) to extract and pre-process the virgin material.

The second one in green is the result of subtracting the emissions and resources of recycling the secondary material (including collection, sorting and transportation) and the emissions and the resources of the virgin material, which has been substituted by the recycled material.

The third one, in blue, is the emissions and resources used to acquire and pre-process the virgin material, assumed to be substituted by recyclable materials.

In summary, this equation means that a product will consider the environmental impacts of the acquisition of raw materials (virgin and recycled) and it will be partially credited by the avoided emissions and resources of virgin material that has been already substituted during the production stage, and by the potential material valorization in its recycling, allowing the use of recycled materials to produce other products; in other words, to maintain the circularity of the materials.

This formula has five key parameters. First, the parameter A that is the allocation factor of burdens and credits between the recycling and the virgin material production between two cycles (i.e., between the supplier and the user of recycled materials). Its value ranges between 0.2 and 0.8. The lowest the value, the most the formula focuses on recyclability at the end of life; while higher values gives more credits to the recycled content. This value varies among materials, as shown in the table, and it is supposed to be based on the current market situation. R1 is the proportion of material in the input to the production that has been recycled from a previous system, while R2 is the proportion of the material in the product that will be recycled in the following system, and it shall consider the inefficiencies in the collection and recycling processes. Finally, the quality ratios (Qsin/Qp; Qsout/Qp), which consider the quality of the ingoing and the outgoing recycled materials.

The European Commission has given default values for these five parameters (see the Table above) for different materials and packaging applications. Concerning RPCs, no default values are given, and neither most recent studies (i.e., IFCO, 2017; Tua et al., 2020; Abejón et al., 2021) have applied this methodology. In this regard, the current ARECO postdoctoral fellowship is working on how to apply this CFF for RPCs in food supply chains.

Table: Default values for the parameters of CFF. Source: European Commission


Packaging Application







Glass Container glass 0.2 0.52 0.66 1 1
Wood Pallet 0.8 0 0.3
Plastics Generic 0.5 0 0.29 0.9* 0.9*
Paper Corrugated 0.2 0.88 0.75 0.85 0.85

Laura Batlle Bayer – Investigadora de la beca postdoctoral ARECO en la Cátedra UNESCO de Ciclo de ida y Cambio Climático de ESCI-UPF.