Sustainability, Circular Economy

Unveiling the Invisible: Understanding Your CO2 Footprint in Sustainable Packaging

14/11/2023 | 10 min read
Diana Strasser

The carbon footprint

It should be kept as small as possible – because it has major consequences. It includes activities, processes, and actions, as well as products and their manufacture. It also has a major impact on climate and the environment and is therefore of crucial importance for both companies and private individuals. We’re talking about the carbon footprint.

In the following article, you’ll find out what the carbon footprint is, how it is calculated and what it is composed of – and we’ll show how the carbon footprint of plastic compares with materials such as glass, paper, or aluminum. 

What is the carbon footprint for?

The carbon footprint indicates the quantities of greenhouse gases released by certain actions. CO2 emissions are associated with any activity – whether it’s the production, use, and recycling of various products or if it’s events, travel, overnight stays, or services. This is why the carbon footprint is an important tool for assessing not only your own lifestyle but also the climate impact of a company: It shows where the most greenhouse gases are being released and where the greatest potential for savings and efficiency measures lies. It therefore also has key economic significance. 1

The footprint – more than just carbon dioxide 

Although the term CO2 emissions is commonly used to assess climate impact, this usually refers to all greenhouse gases. The correct term is therefore CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In addition to carbon dioxide, these also include methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, fluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and nitrogen trifluoride. These gases contribute just as significantly to climate change as carbon dioxide. 

How is the carbon footprint calculated?

Various parameters are examined to calculate the carbon footprint. If you want to keep your footprint as small as possible in your private life, you might take the train rather than a plane to travel, eat a plant-based diet instead of eating meat every day, or live in an urban apartment rather than a large villa in the countryside. When it comes to assessing the sustainability of packaging materials or packaging itself, various factors are examined as part of a comprehensive life cycle analysis. After all, there is no question that packaging is often needed to protect products in the best possible way. But how can it be produced in the most climate-friendly way possible?

This refers to the emissions generated during the extraction and processing of the raw materials for the packaging material. For example, through energy consumption or the use of chemicals in the extraction of resources. The choice of material is therefore very important when it comes to keeping the footprint of packaging low. Whether it’s plastic, glass, cardboard, or aluminum – each material has its advantages and disadvantages.

The production or processing of the raw material for the packaging itself generates CO2e emissions – for example, through the energy consumption of the machines or the recycling of production waste. Energy, and therefore emissions, can be saved through efficient processes.

These are emissions that arise during the transportation of packaging materials from the manufacturers to the consumers or to the places where they are used. Packaging should therefore be as light as possible. This not only has a positive impact on the carbon footprint, but is also beneficial in terms of resource efficiency.

The emissions that are generated when packaging is recycled are also taken into account. Is the packaging recycled at the end of its life? Is it reused? Incinerated? Dumped in a landfill? Questions like these also influence the carbon footprint.

The agony of choice – which material is best?

So, which packaging material is the most sustainable? A glance at the supermarket shelves reveals just how much variety there is in this area: Glass bottles, aluminum bowls, plastic cups, cardboard boxes, and metal cans – they all protect different products and aim to be as environmentally friendly as possible. 

Let’s get this straight from the start: There is no one ideal material for all products in terms of protection and ecology. Nuts and chocolate, which spoil quickly, place different demands on packaging than things like pasta. Liquid or fatty foods also require different packaging than, say, oatmeal. When looking for ecological packaging, it’s therefore important to take a close look at the requirements and then analyze the environmental impact of the packaging in question. 

Glass, aluminum, paper, or plastic?
Each material has its advantages and disadvantages, and a small carbon footprint does not always go hand in hand with low resource consumption. When it comes to packaging, it’s important to assess how product protection and sustainability can best be reconciled. So, what can we say in general about the materials glass, tin/aluminum, paper, and plastic?

Glass packaging has existed for over 300 years, the material being perceived as very high quality and visually appealing thanks to its transparency. It’s 100% recyclable and offers excellent product protection thanks to its barrier properties. This gives food a long shelf life. Glass can be refilled and therefore reused, and these returnable products in particular also score highly in terms of sustainability. However, the decisive factor with glass packaging – regardless of whether it’s disposable or reusable – is the transport route: Glass is heavy, so it involves significantly higher transport weights at every stage of the supply chain, from the raw material to the bottle to the finished product. As a result, they also generate higher CO2 emissions along the way. As a rule: the more regional, the better the environmental footprint! In principle, disposable glass can be melted down as often as required. However, the energy required to do so is extremely high, and a lot of energy is lost through one-time use. And as aesthetically pleasing as glass may be as a material, the risk of breakage should not be underestimated, as this can result in injuries or the loss of the food product. 2 3 

Aluminum and tin, which are used for cans among other things, offer excellent product protection due to their barrier properties, ensuring that food has a long shelf life. The materials can be fully recycled and appropriate collection systems are in place throughout Europe. Cans are easy and cheap to produce and they’re thin-walled and lightweight, making them environmentally friendly for longer transportation routes.
However, a great deal of energy is required to produce tin or aluminum cans. In addition, primeval forests and rainforests are deforested for the necessary raw materials. Since these cans are only used once, so much CO2 is emitted during production and recycling that beverage cans, for example, come last in comparison other packaging options along with disposable glass bottles.4  In terms of user-friendliness, the potential risk of cuts when opening tin cans should also not be overlooked. 

Whether it’s coffee-to-go cups, fruit in cardboard trays, or cheese in coated cardboard packaging: While plastic has come under fire, consumers usually perceive paper and cardboard as environmentally friendly. But are they really? Paper has the advantage that it decomposes and does not remain in the environment for many years. What’s more, paper is made from wood, a renewable raw material. Nevertheless, the extraction and processing of wood has a negative impact on the environment. The high demand for pulp is contributing significantly to the destruction of forests worldwide. In addition, the extraction of fibers and the production of pulp is an energy-intensive and resource-intensive process. Since around 80 percent of the primary fibers processed in Germany, for example, come from imports, the effects of paper production are shifted abroad. Recycled paper has a better environmental footprint than paper made from fresh fibers: It protects forests and requires less energy and water. Another disadvantage of paper as a packaging material is that it is neither hydrophobic nor fat-repellent. Paper therefore needs an appropriate coating for drinks or moist food. The plastic coating extends the shelf life of packaged food, but often makes recycling difficult and costly. At first glance, it is often impossible to tell whether the packaging is made of pure paper or a coated composite. The same applies to paper as to glass: Returnable solutions are the order of the day.5

Contrary to its often poor image, plastic is a convincing material of choice for many types of packaging. Plastic packaging offers very good product protection, it’s unbreakable, it can be produced cost-effectively in many variants and, above all, it’s particularly lightweight, which is particularly advantageous with regard to CO2 emissions over long transport distances. This is why reusable PET bottles are also preferable to their reusable glass competitors due to their lower weight. Plastic packaging also stands out for its ease of use for consumers. 

However, the material requires a great deal of energy to produce, and the raw materials needed to do so were once only available in limited quantities as they are petroleum-based. Today, there are solutions for using both recycled and bio-based materials. Yet while appropriate collection systems have been installed in industrialized nations for recycling, plastic packaging poses massive problems for the environment in some countries around the world. In Europe, too, the reuse of plastic depends on several factors: Is there a corresponding collection stream? Are they monomaterial solutions? What decoration was used for the packaging? Can the recycled material come into contact with food again? If these questions are taken into account when designing the packaging, the carbon footprint of plastic can be kept to a minimum, making plastic packaging the most sustainable alternative. 

... each person in Germany
emits an average of 11.2
tonnes of CO2 equivalents
(Co2e) per year in
greenhouse gases?

A global per capita emission of less than 1 ton of CO2e would be climate-compatible. 6











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