Climate change is increasingly recognized as a major challenge. There is broad consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are having a negative impact on the environment.
The term carbon footprint is commonly used to describe the total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for which an individual or organization is responsible. Footprints can also be calculated for services or products (Carbon Trust, 2007). In general, carbon footprint is defined as “a measure of the total CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions released by a specific product during its life cycle” (Rondoni and Grasso, 2021).
In this regard, the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF has conducted a study to calculate the environmental cost of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the distribution of fruit and vegetables in the Spanish domestic market (peninsular), by comparing two packaging solutions: disposable cardboard boxes and Reusable Plastic Crates (RPC).
The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology was used to analyze the environmental impact associated with each stage of the life of the boxes. 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 usage phase, and those of recycling or final deposit in landfill or incinerator after their useful life. The extended functional unit used in the base 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. As can be seen in Table 1, the results of the study clearly show that RPCs have a lower carbon footprint than single-use cartons (BALA and FULLANA, 2017).
The Eco-cost model developed by the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands) and created for the European Union context was used to calculate the carbon footprint cost. Eco-costs are like the prices we must pay to compensate the negative effects a product on the environment. They help us understand how much environmental impact a product causes and how much we must invest to reduce that impact and keep our planet in balance. In short, Eco-cost is an LCA-based indicator that determines the value of the environmental impact in relation to the expenditure needed to avoid that impact.
It should be mentioned that Eco-cost is recalculated every five years. The latest Eco costs were published in 2022. However, they were recalculated in 2023 due to rising energy prices and inflation caused by the war in Ukraine, as noted by the Dutch non-profit organization Sustainability Impact Metrics.
In the case of the carbon footprint, the eco-cost is €123 per ton. This means that to avoid the emission of 1 tonne of CO2 equivalent, €123 should be invested in 2023. If this is done consistently, and all possible and least costly prevention measures are taken, total CO2 equivalent emissions worldwide would be reduced by 70% compared to emissions in 2008. As a result, global warming would stabilize.
The following formula has been used to calculate the cost of the carbon footprint:
Carbon footprint cost indicators = Monetization factor (Carbon footprint) * Environmental impact (Carbon footprint)
As can be seen in Figure 1, ARECO’s RPCs have a carbon footprint cost almost 10 times lower than a single-use cardboard box over their life cycle. This means that transporting fruits and vegetables in RPCs represents a lower cost in terms of mitigating carbon footprint emissions and represents a greener and more sustainable option in the supply chain.
Chart 1: Carbon footprint and cost of the carbon footprint
Figure 1: Carbon footprint cost of a container in 2023
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.
Carbon Trust, 2007, Carbon footprinting An introduction for organisations, https://semspub.epa.gov/work/09/1142510.pdf
Delft University of Technology, 2023, The way eco-costs 2022 of emissions are determined, https://www.ecocostsvalue.com/eco-costs/eco-costs-emissions/
Rondoni, A., and Grasso, S., 2021 Consumers behavior towards carbon footprint labels on food: a review of the literature and discussion of industry implications, J. Clean. Prod., 301, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.127031