By Sahar Azarkamand, researcher of the ARECO Fellowship of the UNESCO Chair on Life Cycle
If the world’s population were to reach between 9.4 and 10.2 billion by 2050, it would require resources equivalent to almost three planets to sustain our current way of life. This underscores the need for improvements in all our resource management systems (UN, 2017).
Packaging plays a significant role in protecting products and mitigating waste. As an example, approximately one-third of food produced annually is wasted. Packaging can play a key role in preventing this problem and contribute to achieving Goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
On the other hand, in 2021, the European Union generated an estimated total volume of 84.3 million tons of packaging waste, which represented an increase of 6% (or 4.8 million tons) compared to 2020. From 2010 to 2021, paper and cardboard were the materials that made up the most packaging waste, accounting for 40.3% of the total. In contrast, plastic packaging accounted for 19% of the packaging materials discarded during this period (Eurostat, 2023).
Goal 12 of the SDGs is closely related to the packaging industry. This goal strives to ‘promote sustainable consumption and production patterns’ by urging industries, businesses and consumers to prioritize recycling and waste reduction (Target 12.5: Reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse). It also involves supporting developing countries in the transition to more sustainable consumption practices by 2030 (UNEP, 2019). For the packaging sector, this means promoting sustainability by minimizing excess packaging and developing environmentally friendly disposal solutions for the end of a product’s life cycle.
The path to sustainable packaging begins with the design and selection of materials; it continues through the transportation and consumer use phases and concludes with the recycling of packaging materials, which are then reintegrated into end markets to create a closed-loop system. The end-of-life phase of packaging therefore plays a crucial role in its entire life cycle.
According to the results of a study conducted by the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change (BALA and FULLANA, 2017), the end-of-life of the life cycle of Reusable Transport Packaging (RPCs) accounts for 5% of its total carbon footprint, being the stage with the lowest contribution (Figure 1). However, for cardboard boxes it is 61%, and is the stage with the highest contribution (Figure 3).
Figure 1: Carbon Footprint of Different Life Cycle Stages – Reusable Transport Packaging (RPCs)
Figure 2: Carbon Footprint of Different Life Cycle Stages – Cardboard Boxes
As can be seen in Table 1, in general, when transporting 1 ton of fruits and vegetables, the use of reusable transport crates emits 1347,7 kg of CO2 equivalent, while cardboard boxes emit 10.865,8 kg of CO2 equivalent. This means that the carbon footprint of a reusable transport crate is equal to 0.2 kg of CO2 equivalent, while for a cardboard box it is equal to 1.63 kg of CO2 equivalent (Figure 3).
In the End Of Life, transporting 1 ton of fruits and vegetables, the use of reusable transport crates emits 70.1 kg of CO2 equivalent, while cardboard boxes emit 6,671.6 kg of CO2 equivalent. This means that the carbon footprint of a reusable transport crate is equal to 0.01 kg of CO2 equivalent, while for a cardboard box, it is equal to 1 kg of CO2 equivalent (Figure 3).
Table 1: Comparison of End-of-Life Carbon Emissions for Reusable Transport Crates (RPCs) Compared to Cardboard Boxes
Figure 3: Total Life Cycle and End-of-Life Carbon Emissions per Box (Kg of CO2 Equiv.)
In summary, the proportion of the end-of-life stage in the carbon footprint of cardboard boxes is almost 94% higher than that of RPCs. Therefore, the use of RPCs can help reduce waste, carbon footprint and climate change impacts, making it a more sustainable option to help achieve SDG 12.
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,ESCI-UPF, Available: https://areco.org.es/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Memoria_final_Estudio_ACV_ARECO.pdf
United Nations (UN), 2017, World Population Prospects, Available: www.un.org/development/desa/pd/sites/www.un.org.development.desa.pd/files/files/documents/2020/Jan/un_2017_world_population_prospects-2017_revision_databooklet.pdf
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2019, Issue brief-SDG 12. Available: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25764/SDG12_Brief.pdf
Eurostat, 2023, Packaging waste statistics, Available: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statisticsexplained/index.php?title=Packaging_waste_statistics#Waste_generation_by_packaging_material