Sustainable packaging – a look at possible pathways

The European Union Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) is a clear indicator that the food and beverage packaging landscape will look very different in the years to come. A review of CarbonCloud’s ClimateHub data tells us that food and beverage companies are already preparing for this shift.

The Directive focuses on reducing packaging waste, increasing the use of recycled plastics, and making all packaging recyclable by 2030 – a huge sustainability win. There will likely be a sea change in the types of materials used in packaging over the next decade, but in this article we’ll take a look at the carbon footprint of some of the packaging options available on the market today.

The need for sustainable food packaging is urgent

Packaging accounts for 5% of the energy used in a food product’s lifecycle, making it a significant driver of food’s carbon footprint. In the EU, a typical person generates 189 kg of packaging waste. To make matters worse, 80% of food packaging is not suitable for recycling

Most people know that plastic pollution is a serious challenge. It tends to take center stage in waste reduction conversations. But our packaging waste challenges reach far beyond plastic — in fact, paper and cardboard account for nearly 40% of packaging waste in the EU.

There is no question, though, that packaging is necessary to feed the world. Packaging helps to keep food safe from harmful contaminants and allows for safe transport. It extends the shelf life of food and helps to reduce food waste. As the food and beverage industry moves forward, we must incorporate lifecycle thinking into packaging design and decisions to minimise carbon footprint and drive circularity.

60% of ClimateHub’s top searches in June related to packaging

💡 June’s top ClimateHub search terms are a clear signal that food and beverage companies are looking towards packaging as one way to reduce their products’ carbon footprints.

6/10 of June’s top searches were related to food packaging:

  • Stainless steel (6.15 kg CO₂e/kg) – It can easily withstand corrosion, is durable, and is easy to sterilise.
  • Nitrogen (0.06 kg CO₂e/kg) – Used to displace oxygen in food packaging to prevent bacteria from growing.
  • 1L PET water bottle (0.31 kg CO₂e/kg) – Popular for its strength-to-weight ratio, transportation savings, and track record of reliability.
  • Sodium hydroxide (1.12 kg CO₂e/kg) – Used to manufacture everyday products like paper and aluminium.
  • Calcium carbonate (0.30 kg CO₂e/kg)A mineral filler used in the plastics industry; its use in rigid packaging has increased significantly.
  • Aluminium foil (3.18 kg CO₂e/kg)Used extensively in food packaging because it provides a complete barrier to light, oxygen, moisture and bacteria.

A look at some popular packaging choices

The packaging landscape of the future could look radically different from today. Companies around the world are innovating with fully circular solutions, bio-based packaging materials, and new ways of using recycled plastics. 

In the interim, as the world works to transition to a more sustainable future, every effort towards net zero counts. With the right data, you can make informed choices today to reduce the carbon footprint of your products. 

Let’s look at some of today’s common packaging materials.

Plastic (PET) clamshell

Plastic clamshells have a relatively high carbon footprint at 7.78 kg CO₂e/kg. On the plus side, PET plastic  is highly recyclable… in theory. Just because an item can be recycled doesn’t mean it will. Only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled.

Plastic (PET) water bottle (1L)

A plastic water bottle has a fraction of the carbon footprint (0.31 kg CO₂e/kg) a plastic clamshell does. 

Plastic cap

A plastic cap’s carbon footprint is quite high in comparison (8.08 kg CO₂e/kg). When you consider that you can’t have plastic bottles without plastic caps, it becomes clear that rampant production and use of plastic bottles is problematic.

Glass water bottle (0.5L)

A 0.5L glass water bottle’s footprint is over 3x that of a 1L plastic water bottle, partly due to its heavier weight. It’s worth mentioning that in some European countries glass recycling rates exceed 90%. However, the overall recycling rate for glass materials remains below 35%.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel’s carbon footprint of 6.15 kg CO₂e/kg comes in well above that of a plastic water bottle, yet still below the carbon footprint of a plastic cap. It’s a promising choice for those looking towards more circular solutions, because the bulk of its footprint comes from processing.

Paper/paperboard (direct contact with food)

Paper and paperboard have a low carbon footprint, coming in at 1.56 kg CO₂e/kg. It accounts for 40% of waste in the EU, and encompasses 31% of the global packaging market segment. Paper and paper based food packaging can be recycled 6–7 times maximum.

Aluminium

A 0.5L glass water bottle’s footprint is over 3x that of a 1L plastic water bottle, partly due to its heavier weight. It’s worth mentioning that in some European countries glass recycling rates exceed 90%. However, the overall recycling rate for glass materials remains below 35%.

The data you need to make sustainable choices

Carbon accounting is foundational to any company’s sustainability journey. When analyzing the climate footprint of a product, packaging should not be overlooked. ClimateHub has the detailed data you need to make the right packaging choices for your business and to confidently communicate your sustainability efforts to your customers.

With ClimateHub you can compare and contrast the carbon footprint reports of:

  • Virgin and recycled materials
  • Glass bottles of different country origins
  • Packaging boards with and without aluminium
  • Aluminium cans and glass bottles

And much more! Our platform provides a comprehensive breakdown on data concerning packaging, storage, processing, transport, and fossil resource utilisation so you can make nuanced, informed decisions when choosing packaging materials for your products.

Investing in sustainable packaging materials is a business opportunity in the long-term. Growing awareness of sustainability and regulatory changes are driving shifts in consumer demand and behaviour. Food and beverage companies who lead the charge in making sustainable packaging choices today – rather than scrambling to achieve PPWR compliance a few years from now – will benefit from better reputations and position themselves as market leaders.

There is an urgent need to reduce the carbon footprint of single-use materials as we transition to a more circular economy. If you have questions about how you can use CarbonCloud data to improve your sustainability efforts in the short-term, contact our expert team to chat.

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