LCA4Climate Research

When should we use plastic packaging?

  • 31/03/2020
  • 1 min reading time
When should we use plastic packaging
Photo: Pexels

Researchers have assessed the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life-cycle of the packages used for the distribution of fruit and vegetables founding that reusable plastic crates are the most environmentally friendly option.

“Food packaging is an important industrial sector that has a great influence on food loss and waste,” according to the researchers. In this regard, a study performed at the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF has evaluated the environmental impact of the distribution of fruit and vegetables in the Spanish context using reusable plastic crates and single-use cardboard boxes by applying the life cycle assessment methodology. Based on this assessment, a further reflection about the use of plastics in a broader context has been done involving the Universidad de Cantabria, and the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.

Published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, the study considers five different impact categories in order to understand how these materials impact our environment: the global warming potential due to emissions of greenhouse gases to air, the acidification potential of soils and water due to the release of gases such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, the eutrophication potential—the enrichment of the aquatic ecosystem with nutritional elements, due to the emission of nitrogen or phosphorus-containing compounds—, the ozone depletion potential—an indicator of emissions to air that cause the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer—, and the photochemical oxidant creation potential—an indicator of emissions of secondary air pollutants formed by the action of sunlight on nitrogen oxides and reactive hydrocarbons, their precursors, causing respiratory adverse problems in humans, among other effects—. In addition, energy and water consumption have also been taken into account.

The LCA results have shown that reusable plastic crates are the most environmentally friendly option since the values of all impact categories and energy consumption indicators were found higher in the case of single-use cardboard boxes. Only the hypothetical reduction of the quality of the cardboard resulted in significantly lower impacts for cardboard boxes compared to plastic crates in photochemical oxidant creation potential, acidification potential, and energy consumption. As stated in the study, these results can serve to select the best available packages, searching optimal conditions to minimize the negative impacts of food packaging on the environment.

Above all, “this work demonstrates that plastic packaging should not be totally excluded or banned since it can be the most environmentally friendly option in certain applications,” according to the researchers.




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