Reusable plastic boxes for fruit and vegetables generate a 25% lower environmental impact than single-use cardboard boxes, according to a study prepared by the UNESCO Chair of Life Cycle and Climate Change for the Association of Element Logistics Operators. Eco-sustainable Reusables (ARECO).
The study, directed by Pere Fullana, is the first work that compares the main distribution options for fruits and vegetables in Spain through life cycle analysis (LCA).
Specifically, it analyzes six different categories of environmental impact and concludes that in five of them, reusable plastic ones have better environmental performance than single-use cardboard ones and in the sixth the results are practically equivalent.
The main objective of this study was to obtain information on the environmental impact associated with the distribution of fruits and vegetables in Spain, analyzing two alternative packaging solutions: single-use cardboard boxes and reusable plastic boxes. To this end, two comparative fruit and vegetable distribution scenarios have been analyzed using these two types of boxes. A “conservative” scenario in which plastic boxes are considered to have a useful life of 10 years and are capable of withstanding up to 10 rotations of use per year, and a scenario that has been called “technical” in which they remain the useful life but the number of rotations per year is increased to 15. Variations of 11 parameters of the model have also been analyzed, which could respond to real market situations, in order to more accurately identify which of the two options is preferable from the environmental point of view.
- The results of the study clearly show that reusable plastic boxes have better environmental performance than single-use cardboard boxes.
- This occurs for all impact categories and renewable and non-renewable energy consumption indicators considered, both for the conservative and technical scenarios, with the exception of the Acidification Potential (AP) in which, taking into account a safety margin of 25% in the results to take into account the uncertainty of the model and the data used, both types of boxes can be considered to have a similar impact.
- In the case of SINGLE-USE CARDBOARD BOXES, the greatest environmental impact is associated with the manufacturing stage of the boxes (forestry, supply of raw materials and production), while the savings are concentrated in the end-of-life stages. life, mainly associated with the recovery of secondary paper fibers.
- In the case of REUSABLE PLASTIC BOXES, the greatest environmental impact is associated with the useful life of the boxes, including the return of boxes from stores to distribution centers, the inspection and sanitation processes and also the transportation of the boxes back to the fruit and vegetable manufacturers, followed by the granulated polymer production stage in their manufacturing. As for savings, these are also concentrated in the end-of-life stage due to the recovery of recycled plastic pellets.
The results urge us to choose one type of packaging or another according to scientific criteria such as life cycle analysis for the specific market and not only based on the characteristics of the material or external market situations.
The study concludes that in all the impact categories analyzed, plastic boxes have better environmental performance than cardboard boxes and the aggregate results observe that the energy consumption from renewable and non-renewable sources as a whole is higher than cardboard boxes.
Likewise, the study scales the difference between single-use cardboard boxes and reusable plastic boxes from the functional unit applied to the total boxes mobilized for organized distribution in Spain during a year (approximately 550 million fillings) and concludes that The impact on the most influential category, the Global Warming Potential (GWP), would mean an annual saving of 785,239,967 kg of CO2 in the most conservative scenario. 0.24% of the direct emissions generated by Spain in one year.
Source: BALA, A., and FULLANA, P., 2017, Comparative analysis of different distribution options for fruits and vegetables in Spain based on LCA, UNESCO Chair of Life Cycle and Climate Change, ECSI-UPF.