A great advantage of using Reusable Plastic Crates (RPCs) to distribute fresh produces is their lifespan. For instance, 100,668 of RPCs are needed to distribute 100 thousand tonnes of vegetables and fruits in Spain, instead of 6.6 million of single-use cardboard boxes (Bala and Fullana-i-Palmer, 2017). This significantly reduces the need of material and energy to manufacture new single-use crates, which consequently translates into lower environmental impact:
One filling of 15 kg of fresh produce in an average RPC emits about 0.2kg CO2 eq, versus 1.6 kg CO2 eq when using single-use cardboard box (Abejón et al., 2020)
From these CO2 emissions of an RPC, the reconditioning stage is the one that contributes the most to the overall environmental impact of an RPC; about 30-35%, based on Bala and Fullana-i-Palmer (2017). The reconditioning of a RPC involves performing inspections, cleaning the RPCs and sanitize them properly so they can be reused again. This requires transportation to the reconditioning facilities, energy for cleaning and water heating, and the use of chemical products.
Implementing strategies to improve this stage can even further improve the overall environmental performance of RPCs. Tua et al. (2019) proposed to reduce distances to the reconditioning facilities, to optimize energy consumption and the use of renewable energy as key strategies for the reconditioning stage. In this regard, if the electricity used for cleaning and sanitizing the RPCs in the LCA study of Bala and Fullana-i-Palmer (2017) would be renewable (instead of sourced from the grid mix), the CO2 emissions of this process would be reduced by 35%.
ARECO’s partners are targeting towards the use of renewable energy. For instance, all IFCO sites and 50% of partner sites use 100% renewable electricity (IFCO, 2021). Europool also established the target of improving their logistics and energy in order to reduce 20% their carbon footprint by 2025, based on the 2017 as a reference year (Europool, 2020). And Logifruit continues saving up to a 10% energy thanks to a strategy focused on the rationalization and optimization of the resources used in the process of washing and sanitizing containers.
In summary, the already better environmental performance of a RPC to distribute fresh food produces can be improved by moving towards renewable and becoming more efficient.
By Laura Batlle Bayer, researcher of the ARECO postdoctoral fellowship at UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change.
Abejón, R., Bala, A., Vázquez-Rowe, I., Aldaco, R., Fullana-i-Palmer, P., 2020. When plastic packaging should be preferred: Life cycle analysis of packages for fruit and vegetable distribution in the Spanish peninsular market. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 155. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.104666
Bala, A., Fullana-i-Palmer, P., 2017. Análisis comparado de diferentes opciones de distribución de frutas y hortalizas en España mediante el Análisis de Ciclo de Vida.
Europool, 2020. Sustainability report 2020. Euro Pool Group in 2020: into action.
IFCO, 2021. Thriving in the circular economy Making the fresh grocery supply chain sustainable. ESG 2021 Report.
Tua, C., Biganzoli, L., Grosso, M., Rigamonti, L., 2019. Life cycle assessment of reusable plastic crates (RPCs). Resources 8. https://doi.org/10.3390/resources8020110