Reusable plastic boxes generate less environmental impact than single-use cardboard boxes in the distribution of fruit and vegetables in Spain

Researchers at the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF has published the first comparative study of the main options for distribution of fruit and vegetables in Spain through life cycle assessment.

Using reusable plastic boxes would entail saving 785 million kilos of CO2 emissions per year over along their whole life cycle, a 0.24% of Spain’s total direct emissions.

Presentation of the study promoted by ARECO, with the participation of Pere Fullana and Alba Bala from the UNESCO Chair ESCI-UPF. Source: ARECO.

Presentation of the study promoted by ARECO, with the participation of Pere Fullana and Alba Bala from the UNESCO Chair ESCI-UPF. Source: ARECO.

Reusable plastic boxes generate 25% less environmental impact than single-use cardboard boxes in the distribution of fruit and vegetables in Spain, according to a study led by Pere Fullana i Palmer, director of the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF, and presented today in Madrid. The study is the first to compare the main distribution options of fruit and vegetables in the Spanish (peninsular) internal market, analysing six environmental impact categories through life cycle assessment. In five of the six impact categories analysed, reusable plastic boxes show a better environmental performance than cardboard ones, and in the sixth, the results are practically equivalent. The results of this study conclude that using reusable plastic boxes would entail saving 785 million kilos of CO2 emissions per year, over along their whole life cycle, a 0.24% of total direct emissions of Spain.

This work, which also involves the participation of Alba Bala, senior researcher and leader of the Waste Management Research Line at the Chair, has been promoted by the Asociación de Operadores Logísticos de Elementos Reutilizables Ecosostenibles - ARECO (Association of Logistics Operators of Reusable Eco-sustainable Elements).

 

LCA of two comparative systems

The study compares single-use cardboard boxes, 80%(*) of which are recycled, with reusable plastic boxes, for which inverse logistics are implemented as well as washing the boxes, which are 100% recycled at the end of their useful life. With respect to the systems, the study analyses two possible scenarios, based on the real situation with regard to the useful life of reusable plastic boxes: a conservative scenario (basis), assuming a 10-year useful life and 10 rotations per year; and a technical scenario, assuming a 15-year useful life and 10 rotations per year.

To study the full life cycle of both distribution systems, the researchers have applied the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology, considering the stages of extracting the raw materials for manufacturing the boxes, the processes of production, distribution and use, and recycling or final disposal in a landfill or an incinerator, once its useful life has ended. Auxiliary systems such as transporting raw materials for manufacturing the boxes, obtaining electric power from primary energy sources, and that of waste, are also included in this analysis.

In order to compare both systems, the analysis considers as a functional unit “the distribution of 1,000 tons of fruit and vegetables in (single-use) cardboard boxes or in (reusable) plastic boxes.” To translate the functional unit into the number of plastic and cardboard boxes needed (reference flows, specific quantities of product flows for each of the systems compared that are required to produce a functional unit), it has been considered that each box can transport 15 kg of product. This means that 66,667 boxes are needed to transport 1,000 tons. In the conservative scenario, plastic boxes have a 10-year lifetime and make 10 rotations per year. This means that during the 10 years of the plastic boxes’ useful lifetime, they could have 6,666,700 fills.

For all impact categories analysed, such as the use of primary energy (renewable and non-renewable) or the Global Warming Potential (GWP), reusable plastic boxes show a better environmental performance than cardboard ones. Also in the aggregated results referring to energy consumption, it is observed that the consumption of primary energy from renewable and non-renewable sources is lower in the case of plastic boxes, which is closely associated with a lower consumption of materials from renewable and non-renewable sources as a whole than those made of cardboard. Only in the Acidification Potential (AP), both types of boxes have a similar impact Except for the AP, Eutrophication Potential and energy consumption in two scenarios, for the rest of categories, plastic boxes always have a 25% lower environmental impact than cardboard boxes.

If the difference between single-use  cardboard boxes and reusable plastic ones is scaled from a functional unit applied to the total number of boxes mobilised for the distribution organised in Spain over one year (roughly 550 million fills), the impact on the most influential impact category, GWP, would entail annual savings of 785,239,967 kg of CO2 (taking into account the conservative scenario of 10 reuses per year). This represents a 0.24% of Spain’s total direct emissions in one year.

 

A sensitivity study has been carried out in this study in order to determine how robust the results are and find out if any of the variables may modify the tendency within the results obtained or not. This study represents an in-depth review of the existing studies and an adaptation to Spanish reality, and it updates the study performed by the Stuttgart University for the German Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg (SIM) foundation in 2009. The study has been reviewed by a panel of independent experts from the Universidad de Cantabria, the Asociación Española de Normalización y Certificación (AENOR) and the Centro de Investigaciones Energéticas, Medioambientales y Tecnológicas (CIEMAT).

 

(*) Roughly 80% of cardboard boxes are recycled each year in Spain according to REPACAR data (2014). No specific data has been found regarding boxes for distributing fruit and vegetables. Although the percentage of recycling is suspected to possibly be lower in this case, due to contamination of the cardboard by organic material, the mean processing destination of cardboard boxes in general was assumed at the conservative estimate, that is, 80% recycling was maintained.

 

Useful links:

Text extracted and adapted from the ARECO’s official press release

Link to the report of the final study

Link to the executive summary of the study


More information

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www.areco.org.es

 

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