IQPAK® is a new type of packaging system that offers the industry several solutions to problems at the same time: Developed jointly with the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability LBF in Darmstadt, the system aims to combine disposable and reusable components in a material-minimizing, ecologically sensible way. It also already uses the Digital Product Passport to optimize logistics, consumer experience, recycling andcarbon footprinting. Dr. Susanne Guth-Orlowski, expert in circular economy and digital product passports, presents IQPAK® as innovative packaging for food in the wholesale, to-go and food service sectors, as well as for chemical and cosmetic products in this guest article.

Three-layer solution as a combination of disposable and reusable packaging

The innovative and mass-marketable IQPAK® packaging consists of three layers of material that are not glued together (see Figure 1):

  • The outer layer (handling layer) is used to present marketing and product information. This layer is a disposable element of the packaging that is renewed each time it is reused; however, recycled material from the IQPAK® cycle is used for refurbishment.
  • The middle layer (system layer) is also made of 100 percent recycled material. It shapes the packaging; the system layer makes the IQPAK® packaging robust and stable. An NFC chip that can withstand 200-300 product life cycles is built into the base of this layer. Such frequent reuse makes the chip economical. It is also environmentally friendly, as it is powered by a passive coil and does not require a battery. The system layer is the reusable component of the IQPAK® system.
  • The inner layer (content layer) is made from new material and is also a disposable component of the packaging. It meets the highest hygiene requirements, especially for food packaging. The respective filling goods are placed in this layer. During refurbishment, a new content layer is inserted into the system layer by machine; this requires around 3-4 grams of material for a 500 ml pack, which is fed into the in-house recycling loops after each usage cycle and reused as a new system layer.
processing technology center at the Fraunhofer LBF in Darmstadt. LBF specialists used the chill-roll process to produce films of different thicknesses for the handling and content layers of the IQPAK system. Photo: Fraunhofer LBF
Caption: The thin content layer is inserted into the stable system layer by a thermoforming machine of this type – a fast and mechanically simple process. Photo: Fraunhofer LBF

All three layers are made of polypropylene monomaterial (PP). Polypropylene has good recycling properties: It can be easily melted down and recycled. As the outer layer, the handling layer, is usually renewed when the packaging is reused, a printed QR code is not suitable for identifying the packaging here. However, the NFC chip in the base of the dimensionally stable system layer contains all the information on the material properties of all three layers by accessing the data stored in the IQPAK® database, which makes it possible to separate the IQPAK® multilayers by type and recycle them automatically and easily.

The “Plastics Processing and Component Design” department at Fraunhofer LBF, headed by Dr. Christian Beinert, assessed the reusable approach and the life cycle assessment of the material selection for IQPAK® and evaluated its suitability for implementation in large-scale production. The Fraunhofer Institute is also involved in the development of the container production and refurbishment machinery for IQPAK®.

The patented packaging does not require an energy-intensive washing process for reuse. [PL1] [KR2] This avoids waste water, chemical detergents and the usual high energy consumption for heating the water, which has a positive impact on the eco-balance of IQPAK® and the packaged product.
The integrated NFC chip enables [PL3] [KR4] to easily track each individual package, communicate with consumers and use an intelligent deposit system that makes different deposit value allocations just as conceivable as cross-border deposits.
This environmental assessment report (prepared by ifeu in Heidelberg in summer 2023) certifies that the IQPAK® system has a cradle-to-grave value of 3.14 kg CO2e for 1,000 cups made from recycled PP (rPP), for example. This means a 56% reduction in emissions compared to a commercially available returnable cup that has to be washed.

Intelligent circulation system based on automated data collection

IQPAK® is, as the name suggests, an intelligent packaging innovation that offers added value primarily through the use of data. It is no secret that the circular economy is not yet sufficiently possible today because information such as material, origin, reuse and return points is not available when the consumer wants to dispose of the product after use[1].

The “built-in” data of the IQPAK® IT system greatly improves the return of packaging in particular. Each packaging has a unique identity that is linked to the serial number of the chip. The retail partners scan the NFC chip on the packaging and record its location via the Global Location Number (GLN) of the seller or the return station.

This enables an efficient logistics process based on real-time data. The movement of each individual container in the IQPAK® cycle, regardless of whether it is in refurbishment, filling, transport, wholesale market, retail, at the consumer, in the return container or at the recycling station, is written directly into the system database via the scanning process using an NFC chip, so that the operator always has an overview of the whereabouts of the packaging. This makes it easy to manage the pool of all packaging in circulation and to evaluate the return rate. If the return rate is too low, you can even increase the deposit on the packaging to motivate consumers to return it. The frequency of use of the packaging is thus actively controlled and maximized. This means that less completely new packaging needs to be produced than with conventional value-added packaging.

Retail partners are actively involved in the returns process (reverse logistics). One challenge is that there is often not enough space in stores to take back larger quantities. Johann Löning, visionary and Managing Director of IQPAK®, envisions intelligent return containers in the future that automatically report when they are full so that they can be collected when needed. In “smart cities” such as Willich in North Rhine-Westphalia, the waste collection service is already successfully using a similar system[2].

Digital product passport for implementing the R strategies

IQPAK® also offers advantages for consumers: By simply reading the NFC chip with their cell phone, they can find the return points for the packaging and recognize the positive environmental effects they achieve by using and returning IQPAK® packaging. An app is currently being used for this purpose, which also sets the deposit value to zero on return and gives the consumer their money back. This function enables changing deposit values and prevents multiple redemption of the deposit (the so-called “double redemption problem”). As the transaction data is only ever linked to the packaging and not to the customer, the solution is completely anonymous and GDPR-compliant.

The advantages of IQPAK at a glance: Graphic: Ahnen&Enkel

However, consumers are not only interested in the information on returns. Before making a purchase decision, they may want to know more about the product and its ingredients: Is the product vegan or halal? Does it contain traces of nuts? But also: Where was the product manufactured? Were the employees paid fairly during production? Does the product have a recognized environmental certification? The NFC chip allows customers to easily obtain manufacturer information and interact with it. Manufacturers thus have direct contact with their target group, can place competitions, campaigns, instructions for use and advertising messages flexibly and no longer have to include some information on the already overcrowded packaging.

With the NFC chip in the packaging, IQPAK® is ready for the Digital Product Passport, which will be required by the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR)[3] for a large number of products from 2027/2028. The digital product passport is intended to provide additional information on the product to enable the so-called R-strategies (Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, and Recycle). For cosmetics, detergents, paints and varnishes, chemical and plastic products, etc., data on product composition, environmental compatibility, reuse and recycling must then be available to customers and other stakeholders in the product life cycle.

Positive impact on the eco-balance

The eco-balance of a product improves significantly if its packaging is frequently reused. The IQPAK® database also helps here in the background: it knows the number of circulation cycles already completed, knows the respective previous filling goods and can thus prevent conflicts during refilling.

The technical solution behind IQPAK® is currently proprietary; however, it is open to standardization of the technical protocols, data models and data management, as currently specified in the CEN/CENELEC JTC24[4] working group for the Digital Product Passport. Through standardization, several IQPAK® manufacturers could work together in the future, comprehensive reuse and recycling processes could be developed and the app that is currently still required could be eliminated. End customers would then be able to access product and packaging information even more easily.

Comparison of IQPAK® with current commercially available reusable solutions

The following table provides an overview of the special features of IQPAK® packaging.


IQPAK is an innovative and climate-friendly solution for the packaging industry. It not only minimizes the ecological footprint, but also builds a bridge to the digital world. IQPAK® helps companies to achieve both legally prescribed and self-imposed sustainability targets and recycling quotas and to clearly differentiate themselves from less sustainable products. With its pioneering functions, IQPAK® sets new standards in terms of the circular economy and consumer interaction and could soon establish a new packaging culture.

Dr. Susanne Guth-Orlowski. Photo: Foto Naus, Willich

Author: Dr. Susanne Guth-Orlowski is an expert in the circular economy and digital product passports. She advises the European Commission, the Global Battery Alliance and IQPAK®, among others. With her IT security background, she has been developing end customer and industry solutions with secure data exchange for 20 years. She is the founder of the consulting agency and co-founder of the CircularTech Forum. Dr. Guth-Orlowski is convinced that modern technology can help to achieve the ambitious climate targets. It is developing strategic and technical concepts for the digital battery passport and its market launch, which will enable batteries to be better reused or recycled and thus facilitate the circular economy.

[1] Holger Berg, Raik Kulinna, Carsten Stöcker, Susanne Guth-Orlowski, Ricky Thiermann, Natalie Porepp, “Overcoming information asymmetry in the plastics value chain with digital product passports: How decentralized identifiers and verifiable credentials can enable a circular economy for plastics”, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, 2022, accessed on 01.05.2024 at:
[3] European Commission, Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), to be ratified in May 2024. Cf.
[4] CEN/CENELEC, Joint Technical Committee (JTC) 24, Digital Product Passports: Framework and System,

Picture at the top: A disassembled IQPAK drinking cup dummy: in front the thin foils of the handling and content layer, behind the thicker-walled system layer, in the bottom of which the NFC chip is integrated for assignment in the database system. Photo: Fraunhofer LBF

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