In 2020, the Scientific Journal of Resources, Conservation and Recycling published the comparative environmental study of fruit and vegetable distribution in the Spanish peninsular market using Reusable Plastic Crates (RPC) and single-use cardboard boxes. To do this study, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was applied and performed by the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change.

This type of studies allow, firstly, to estimate the environmental performance of RPCs. As it was published by ARECO, within this specific study case, the RCPs have a 88% less Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and 57% less energy use than single use cardboard boxes. Secondly, this study allows identifying the life cycle stages that contribute the most to the environmental impacts. For RPCs, the service stage is the one with the largest contribution to GHG emissions (70%), being transport the most important process, followed by the washing processes. Regarding the manufacture of the RPCs, the production of plastic granulates is the most important process, contributing 22% to the GHG emissions.

Thirdly, the study gives knowledge on the key parameters to achieve a good environmental performance of the food distribution system. One crucial parameter is the durability of RPCs, meaning, their useful life and annual rotations. A greater durability, the lower the resources will be needed to manufacture the crates. Moreover, based on the sensitivity analysis of the study, there are two other important parameters: the recycling of the RPCs and the quality of the plastic granulate after being recycled.

These findings can be useful as to set the basis to keep evaluating and defining new action lines to keep improving the environmental performance of RPCs. For example, actions that focus on increasing the recycled content in the manufacture of RPCs, the use efficiency of resources for washing processes, as well as changing the electricity grid mix used in the different stages. All these interventions, among others, will be assessed within the time frame of the ARECO fellowship in circularity.

By Laura Batlle Bayer, researcher of the ARECO postdoctoral fellowship at UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change.