LCA4Climate Research

How to improve food packaging waste treatment

Investigadores evalúan los impactos ambientales de los residuos de envases en España en 2014

Cómo mejorar la gestión de residuos de envases de alimentos
Foto: Shutterstock

Para lograr mejoras relevantes en el modelo español de gestión de residuos para el envasado de alimentos, los investigadores han evaluado el ciclo de vida completo del sistema actual, descubriendo que se pueden lograr mejoras enviando todos los desechos residuales a tratamientos mecánico-biológicos.

According to some experts, one-way packaging can represent a significant part of the environmental impacts of the food value chain and thus optimising its management is essential. To handle this problem, “alternatives such as collective selective waste collection managed by authorised organisations (Extended Producer Responsibility, EPR), with or without Deposit-Refund Systems (DRS) are being implemented at the European level,” explains director at the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF and co-author of the study Pere Fullana i Palmer.

But there is no single simple formula that can be applied to every waste management system. That is why UNESCO Chair ESCI-UPF and the Universidad de Cantabria have performed a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)—systematic analysis of the environmental impact of products or systems during their entire life cycle— of the current Spanish model of one-way food packaging waste management: from collection of each fraction in specific containers to final treatment, considering eight different materials, such as glass or aluminium.

Published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, the study considers six different impact categories in order to understand how these materials impact our environment: potential depletion of natural non-fossil resources, potential global warming due to emissions of greenhouse gases to air, potential acidification of soils and water due to the release of gases such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, eutrophication potential—the enrichment of the aquatic ecosystem with nutritional elements, due to the emission of nitrogen or phosphorus-containing compounds—, ozone depletion potential—indicator of emissions to air that cause the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer— and photochemical ozone formation—indicator of emissions of gases that affect the creation of photochemical ozone in the lower atmosphere (smog) catalysed by sunlight—.

The LCA results have shown that the recycling stage is the main stage contributing to the environmental impacts, but the environmental savings related to the recovery of materials in this stage compensates these loads and the system must be considered advantageous for the environment. By contrast, sorting plants present the lowest contributions. Therefore, “significant environmental improvements (close to 10%) would be achieved by addressing the total bulk collection flow to mechanical-biological treatment and increasing the selective collection of light and glass packaging waste”, explains the researcher at the Chair and first author of the study Alba Bala.

As stated in the study, these results can serve to identify common drivers that contribute significantly to the development of an integrated approach to waste packaging management and as a baseline for comparison studies with alternative waste recovery technologies and systems.

This study is part of the ARIADNA Project – “Sustainability study on the introduction of a mandatory Deposit-Refund System (DRS) for beverage packaging in Spain: a comparative environmental, social and economic analysis versus the current situation”. The Project compares the current system of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) with a hypothetical situation in which both systems would coexist.




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