We must now disappoint a little: unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the question of the contribution of packaging to CO2 emissions. Because the question alone requires becoming aware of many causalities and correlations.
So: let's start.
If the production of packaging emits CO2 (which is undoubtedly the case), would it follow that a company's carbon footprint would look better if it would relinguish the packaging? In any case, the answer in most cases is: no. Even if packaging has many functions, depending on where in the value chain it appears, the protection of the respective product is most certainly at the core of the efforts of packaging designers like us, packaging manufacturers and, of course, producers. Usually, the production of the packaged good causes much more CO2 emissions than the production of the packaging. The damage to the world's climate would therefore be much greater if goods ranging from laptops and chocolate bars to bread were not protected, making it necessary to produce more of these goods. Let's take a look at this train of thought using food as an example: every year, the UN World Food Organization (FAO) estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food rot from production to final consumption. It does not meet standards, it accumulates as waste in the production process, it is carelessly thrown away, or it remains on supermarket shelves until it has to be removed and destroyed there, or it exceeds the best-before date at the consumer. These 1.3 billion tons of unused food cause 4.4 gigatons of CO2 emissions every year. If we could eliminate food waste by, among other things, using packaging that extends the time-to-eat corridor, we would be able to save about eight percent of total CO2 emissions worldwide.
Let's talk about cucumbers again
Of course, packaging is also responsible for greenhouse gases. But their share is comparatively small. To stay with the example of food: around 98% of the CO2 emissions of a packaged food product are attributable to the product itself, only two percent come from the packaging.
At this point, it's time for the famous and apparently hotly debated example of cucumbers wrapped in a thin plastic film: the thin plastic film ensures that a cucumber remains eatable for up to 14 days instead of just three. This saves around 13.5 grams of CO2 per cucumber, while the production of the plastic film causes only 4.4 grams of emissions. However, even according to the latest studies, a thicker cucumber skin would give it a longer shelf life without compromising on taste – but this thicker skin does not conform to the norm, and this on the other hand prevents the plastic film from being saved.
Protection for product and climate
So how a package contributes to the greenhouse gas balanceis also always based on the benefit of the package in protecting the product. For us packaging designers, this quite honestly always means a difficult question of weighing up different materials as well. “However, the CO2 value alone is not sufficient as a criterion for selecting the packaging material. In addition to the pure material value, there are also the CO2 emissions for transport, valuable recycling, reuse or even composting or incineration – with or without energy generation. So we have to look at the entire life cycle.“
The effect on transport chains
But there are, of course, many more levers for how packaging can contribute to or reduce a product's carbon footprint. The key, in many cases, is clever packaging design. If a package takes up less space, that also means: more packages per pallet and thereby less CO2-intensive transport. “We are experiencing this very strongly right now with the compensation of styrofoam by fiber-based materials. Styrofoam is light and cheap, but very bulky. By cleverly replacing it with other fiber-based materials, we have repeatedly increased the amount of packaging materials here by a factor of 10 to 20. On top of that, there are other savings along the entire supply chain.“ Want another example? Illuminant manufacturer Glamox has optimized its transport packaging so that 35% more units can be transported per pallet.
Plastic can also be climate-friendly
The reusability of packaging can be a further impulse for reducing CO2 emissions, even if the choice of material may not seem as sustainable at first glance. The Fraunhofer Institute, for example, conducted a study comparing whether plastic containers or cardboard as transport packaging for fruit and vegetables had a better CO2 balance. Plastic was the clear winner: the CO2 emissions of plastic containers were 60% lower than those of cardboard boxes. Although the production of plastic containers is more CO2-intensive, their reusability turns this originally negative balance in their favor from the sixth transport onward.
The compelling conclusion from such examples: While the direct effect of packaging production on companies' carbon footprint may be small, when considered across the entire value chain, packaging is one of the key levers for minimizing emissions – through its role in product protection as well as its impact on logistics. “Beyond that, packaging has much more serious impacts on our nature that are not measured in CO2. Pollution of land and sea by packaging waste, the resulting microplastics, and threats to marine life – these are all impacts we should consider when designing packaging. At the end of the day, our experience over and over again is that sustainability is a reduction of resources, of time or materials. And that's then directly related to cost savings, typically ten percent or more across the supply chain, so it's much greater than just the pure cost of materials.“