The aim of this study, promoted by the Association of Logistics Operators for Eco-sustainable Reusable Items (ARECO), was to obtain objective, scientifically-based information on the environmental impact associated with the distribution of fruit and vegetables on the Spanish (peninsular) internal market, by comparing two packaging solutions: disposable cardboard boxes and reusable plastic boxes.
Life Cycle Analysis (ACV) methodology was used for this purpose, to enable analysing the environmental impact associated with all stages in the life cycle of boxes, from when the raw materials for their production are extracted until these become waste.
The study compared disposable cardboard boxes, 80% of which are recycled, with reusable plastic boxes, for which inverse logistics are implemented as well as washing the boxes, which are 100% recycled at the end of their useful life.
The study analyses two possible scenarios based on the real situation with regard to the useful life of reusable plastic boxes: conservative scenario (basis): 10 years’ useful life, 10 rotations per year; technical scenario: 15 years’ useful life, 10 rotations per year
The functional unit used for the analysis, which enables making a comparison of the two systems, is “the distribution of 1000 tons of fruit and vegetables in (disposable) cardboard boxes or in (reusable) plastic boxes”.
The study includes the full life cycle of both distribution systems, considering the stages of extracting the raw material for manufacturing the boxes, the production process, that of distribution and use, and recycling or final disposal at a dump or incinerator after their useful life is over.
The categories of environmental impact analysed were as follows:
- Use of primary (renewable) energy (PRE);
- Use of primary (non-renewable) energy (PNRE)
- Global Warming Potential (GWP)
- Ozone Layer Depletion Potential (ODP)
- Acidification Potential (AP)
- Eutrophication Potential (EP)
- Photochemical Oxidant Creation Potential (POCP)
Reusable plastic boxes display a better environmental performance than cardboard ones in all the impact categories analysed. In the aggregated results on energy consumption it can also be seen that the consumption of primary energy from renewable and non-renewable sources is lower in the case of plastic boxes, which is closely associated with a lower consumption of materials from renewable and non-renewable sources as a whole than those made of cardboard.
If the difference between disposable cardboard boxes and reusable plastic ones is scaled from a functional unit applied to the total number of boxes mobilised for the distribution organised in Spain over one year (roughly 550 million fills), the impact on the most influential impact category, Global Warming Potential, would mean annual savings of 785,239,967 kg of CO2 (taking into account the conservative scenario of 10 reuses a year). This represents 0.24% of the direct emissions generated by Spain in a year.
The results of the study clearly display that reusable plastic boxes have a better environmental performance than disposable cardboard ones. Only in Acidification Potential (PA) do both types of boxes have a similar impact. Even after the Sensitivity Analysis reusable plastic boxes have a better environmental performance. Except for the Acidification Potential, Eutrophication Potential and energy consumption in both cases, for the other categories plastic boxes always have a 25% lower environmental impact than cardboard boxes.