Ensuring enough food for the world’s growing population, while reducing impacts on the environment, is one of the main challenges of the 21st century (UN, 2015). Food systems are responsible for 23-42% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (IPCC, 2022). Overall, GHGs before and after agricultural production reached 5.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2eq) globally in 2020, 33% of emissions from agri-food systems (FAO, 2023).

The food chain generates GHG at all stages which includes, after agricultural production, processing, packaging, transport and retail. Based on FAO in 2021, the share of post-agricultural production emissions related to packaging and retail in Spain is approximately 12% and 15%, respectively (FAO, 2023).

In this sense, packaging could play an important role in reducing GHG emissions in the retail and packaging phases. To achieve this, it is necessary to calculate the GHG emissions throughout the life cycle of different types of packaging.

This is where Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) plays an essential role. In this sense, the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF has conducted a study to calculate the environmental impacts associated with the distribution of fruits and vegetables in the Spanish domestic market (peninsular), by comparing two packaging solutions: disposable cardboard boxes and Reusable Transport Packaging (RTP). The study includes the complete life cycle of both distribution systems, considering the stages of extraction of the raw material for the manufacture of the boxes, the production process, distribution and use, and those of recycling or final deposit in landfill or incinerator after their useful life.

The extended functional unit used in the baseline scenario is the distribution of 1,000 tons of fruits and vegetables, with a transported weight of 15 kg per box, in cardboard boxes (single-use) or RPCs with 10 years of useful life and 10 rotations per year. According to the results of the study RPCs have a lower carbon footprint (88%) than single-use cardboard boxes (BALA and FULLANA, 2017).

According to FAO data from 2023, in Spain 27% of greenhouse gas emissions from post-agricultural production, equivalent to 5,030.50 tCO2 Equiv. come from packaging and retail. Assuming that only cardboard boxes were used for packaging and that they were replaced by RPCs, we could achieve a reduction of 88% (Fig 1). This translates into around 4,426 Kt CO2 Equiv. of annual reduction in the packaging and retail phase in the post-farming production phase in Spain.

Therefore, the transition from cardboard boxes to RPC crates throughout the supply chain has great potential to reduce the carbon footprint and promote sustainability.

Fig 1: Annual greenhouse gas emissions in the packaging and retail phase of the supply chain: cardboard boxes versus reusable plastic crates

In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, another impact of packaging on post-agricultural production is the generation of waste. Between 2009 and 2020, the total mass of packaging waste generated in the European Union increased by 20% (EU, 2023). In the LCA conducted by the UNESCO Chair on Life Cycle and Climate Change, it has been considered that 100% of damaged RPC boxes that are identified at the inspection stage are sent to a recycler (according to data provided by Euro Pool Systems, IFCO and Logifruit) and that these are made of 100% virgin material. As for the cardboard boxes, it has been considered that they are manufactured with 20% recycled material (according to FEFCO data for reference CF1) and that at the end of their useful life 80% are recycled and used again in the manufacture of new boxes and that the remaining 20% are incinerated in a facility with energy recovery.

According to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, EU Member States must prevent the generation of packaging waste and minimize the environmental impact of packaging. They must also take measures to increase the proportion of reusable packaging placed on the market and implement packaging reuse systems, without compromising food hygiene and consumer safety (EU, 2023). In this sense, and in order to achieve the objectives of this regulation, the use of RPCs is better from an environmental point of view. Not only by reducing the amount of packaging generated, but also by reducing the impact associated with the distribution stage.

By Sahar Azarkamand, researcher of the ARECO Fellowship of the UNESCO Chair of Life Cycle of ESCI-UPF.


BALA, A., and FULLANA, P., 2017, Análisis comparado de diferentes opcines de distribución de frutas y verduras en españa basado en el ACV, Cátedra UNESCO de Ciclo de Vida y Cambio Climático, ECSI-UPF.https://areco.org.es/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Memoria_final_Estudio_ACV_ARECO.pdf

European Union, 2023, Revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2023/745707/EPRS_BRI(2023)745707_EN.pdf

 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2023, Greenhouse gas emissions from pre- and post-agricultural production processes Global, regional and country trends, 1990–2020. https://www.fao.org/3/cc5768en/cc5768en.pdf

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2023, Emissions from pre and post agricultural production, https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/GPP

IPCC et al., 2022, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA (2022), 10.1017/9781009157926

United Nations (UN), 2015. Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.