The study, which was initiated by carton manufacturer by SIG Combibloc, compared the resource requirement and ecological impact of various packaging materials including cartons, metal cans, glass jars and pouches. It also considered the emissions associated with each form of packaging including carbon dioxide output and its impact on climate, particulate matter emission, eutrophication (or nutrient enrichment) and acidification of soil and natural bodies of water.
The researchers studied all aspects of packaging from extraction and processing of raw materials to the manufacturing of packaging, transport, the filling process, distribution, and sale and recovery or disposal.
It concluded that the packaging’s weight and material have the biggest influences on packaging’s environmental impact. Aseptic and retortable carton packaging systems are the least harmful in all categories because of their resource-efficient use of raw materials. Cartons use renewable wood which accounts for up to 70 per cent of its total content.
Michael Hecker, the company’s head of group environment, health and safety, said: “Our objective was to gain well-founded information on the environmental performance of the most commonly used packaging for ambient food products.”
The environmental impact of packaging is now a key consideration for policy-makers as they formulate policy for food industry, retailers and consumers.
Conducted throughout the European Union, the research adhered to internationally recognised ISO standards.
“This means we have incorporated into the investigation, for instance, considerable differences in recycling rates,” said Hecker. “The results, which are based on the average recycling rates of the various European nations, have undergone an in-depth sensitivity analysis. They show that, even with varying recycling rates, carton packaging performs significantly better than the assessed packaging alternatives in almost all environment-related impact categories.”
Meanwhile, recent US research confirmed that the domestic demand for food containers is forecast to rise by 2.5 per cent a year to reach more than 300bn units valued at $25bn within four years. The study from the Cleveland-based research firm The Freedonia Group predicted that the growth in demand will be fuelled by the growing popularity of single-serving packaging, such as plastic cups and pouches, in a wider range of applications.
Plastic containers, and bags and pouches are forecast to experience the fastest growth among food container types, often replacing paperboard, metal and glass containers.