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Environmental impacts of packaged foods

FCRN member Ujué Fresán has co-authored this paper, which calculates the environmental impacts associated with the packaging of several breakfast foods (including orange juice, cereals and peanut butter). For each food product, significant differences in carbon footprint were found, depending on packaging size, packaging materials and brand. Packaging consistently accounted for a lower carbon footprint than production of the food item itself.

The figure below shows that the carbon footprint associated with food packaging is lower when the food is packaged as a multi-serving product (e.g. a tub of instant coffee) versus when each serving is packaged individually (e.g. a sachet of instant coffee). The black line shows the baseline for individually-packaged products, and the orange and green lines show the percentage reduction in packaging carbon footprint for small and large multi-serving products, respectively.

Image: Figure 1, Fresán et al. Relative difference in percentage (mean and 95% confidence interval) in greenhouse gas emissions derived from the packaging of one serving of the small multi-serving and the big multi-serving products compared to individual-serving product, for a range of food products. Note: Black line at 0 in the x axis represents individual-servings product.

Cardboard packaging had a lower carbon footprint per serving than plastic packaging. Glass packaging had the highest carbon footprint, partly due to a greater weight of glass being required. However, the paper notes that glass can be recycled indefinitely without loss of quality and is inert in landfill.

The authors note that literature on the environmental impacts of packaging is scarce, and that this paper is novel in that it provides results for different foods, sizes, materials and brands instead of focusing on only one aspect. Therefore, the findings of this paper are shown to be generalisable across a few products instead of being specific to (say) only one food or brand.

The authors recommend that, while single-serving products have the highest carbon footprint from packaging, consumers should also consider how frequently they eat certain products, since multi-servings products might expire before they can be consumed, and single-serving products can help to reduce food waste.



Nowadays, people consume high amount of packaged foods. The US Environmental Protection Agency encourages buying packaged products that have a reduced impact on the environment, however, the literature discussing the environmental impact of food packaging is scarce. Therefore, our goal was to perform an assessment of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the materials used for the packaging of foods, and to determine whether the size of the products, the main material used, and the commercial brand have any effect on this. We also studied the relative contribution of the packaging compared with the food production. Additionally, we checked the generalizability of our findings in relation to other environmental impacts. We performed life cycle analyses of the primary packaging materials used in six frequently consumed packaged breakfast products, produced in three different sizes, with three diverse packaging materials and by three brands. Data were reported per serving. For any food product, we observed a significant difference in GHG emissions per serving according to packaging size, packaging materials and commercial brand. The environmental impact of the packaging was constantly lower than that from the food production. The same trends could be observed for other environmental impacts. Altogether, when selecting sustainable packaged foods, food production is of primary importance, but one cannot underestimate the impact of different packaging sizes, materials and brands.



Fresán, U., Errendal, S., Craig, W.J. and Sabaté, J., 2019. Does the size matter? A comparative analysis of the environmental impact of several packaged foods. Science of The Total Environment, 687, pp. 369-379.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource resource How important is storage and packaging?


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16 Jul 2019
Fodder Category
Research trails