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Can packaging be better for the environment?

Why measuring is so important

I like to buy naked fruit and veges. I don’t even bother pack them into those reusable mesh shopping bags. I let them roll free in trolley. Sometimes I cringe a little as I walk past shoppers shoving their bunch of bananas, beautifully wrapped in a highly sustainable yellow skin, into yet another plastic bag. Come on! We all know better than this right!?!

But is less packaging ALWAYS better? It turns out - maybe not!

I went to a great talk last week by Barbara Nebel from ThinkStep on Cradle to Cradle thinking. During her talk she told us about the life cycle of a tomato – the point of which was:

To reduce the carbon footprint of a tomato the solution was to have MORE packaging.

How can this be possible?

How can this be possible??

The vast majority of a tomato’s carbon footprint is in the production. It takes a lot of energy to irrigate, heat, and harvest tomatoes. Of the tomatoes grown, there a LOT that don’t survive the trip from farm to household. The energy and carbon used to grow those perished tomatoes cannot be salvaged, so the burden is spread across the remaining tomatoes that do make it onto out plates.

It turns out by including something called an ethylene absorber in the packaging, significantly more tomatoes survive the journey from farm to plate. This means the carbon footprint of each tomato is substantially lower – even when the additional carbon footprint of the ethylene absorbers is taken into account.

So... should we buy our tomatoes in plastic??

No! The point of this story is NOT to suggest that we should all put our produce into plastic bags to bring them home. Please don’t! The point is that to understand how to reduce the environmental burden of a product, we really do need to understand the whole life cycle of that product.

In the case of the tomato – only the carbon footprint was considered. This is by no means the whole story. Of course we should aim to reduce the carbon footprint of our products, but in this case are simply shifting the impacts elsewhere? What happens to those little plastic ethlyne absorbers? Do they end in landfill? The oceans? What are the impacts of this change to biodiversity, land-use, or air quality?

Planetary Accounting looks at life-cycle impacts across ten critical environmental “currencies” such as water consumption, nitrogen flow to the environment, waste, and carbon emissions. Moreover, it helps us to set science-based limits for each of these currencies so that it is straight forward to determine the priorities.

I cant answer the question of should be using ethylne absorbers today, but Planetary Accounting could help to answer this question! In fact, we are gearing up in this space with a project looking at how to bring more transparent information to consumers through “planetary facts” labels. Follow us on social media to hear more on this soon!

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