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An extended life cycle analysis of packaging systems for fruit and vegetable transport in Europe

: Albrecht, Stefan; Brandstetter, Peter; Beck, Tabea; Fullana-i-Palmer, Pere; Grönman, Kaisa; Baitz, Martin; Deimling, Sabine; Sandilands, Julie; Fischer, Matthias


International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 18 (2013), No.8, pp.1549-1567
ISSN: 0948-3349
ISSN: 1614-7502
Journal Article, Electronic Publication
Fraunhofer IBP ()

Purpose: The year-round supply of fresh fruit and vegetables in Europe requires a complex logistics system. In this study, the most common European fruit and vegetable transport packaging systems, namely single-use wooden and cardboard boxes and re-useable plastic crates, are analyzed and compared considering environmental, economic, and social impacts.
Methods: The environmental, economic, and social potentials of the three transport packaging systems are examined and compared from a life cycle perspective using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Life Cycle Costing (LCC) and Life Cycle Working Environment (LCWE) methodologies. Relevant parameters influencing the results are analyzed in different scenarios, and their impacts are quantified. The underlying environmental analysis is an ISO 14040 and 14044 comparative Life Cycle Assessment that was critically reviewed by an independent expert panel.
Results and discussion: The results show that wooden boxes and plastic crates perform very similarly in the Global Warming Potential, Acidification Potential, and Photochemical Ozone Creation Potential categories; while plastic crates have a lower impact in the Eutrophication Potential and Abiotic Resource Depletion Potential categories. Cardboard boxes show the highest impacts in all assessed categories. The analysis of the life cycle costs show that the re-usable system is the most cost effective over its entire life cycle. For the production of a single crate, the plastic crates require the most human labor. The share of female employment for the cardboard boxes is the lowest. All three systems require a relatively large share of low-qualified employees. The plastic crate system shows a much lower lethal accident rate. The higher rate for the wooden and cardboard boxes arises mainly from wood logging. In addition, the sustainability consequences due to the influence of packaging in preventing food losses are discussed, and future research combining aspects both from food LCAs and transport packing/packaging LCAs is recommended.
Conclusions: For all three systems, optimization potentials regarding their environmental life cycle performance were identified. Wooden boxes (single use) and plastic crates (re-usable) show preferable environmental performance. The calibration of the system parameters, such as end-of-life treatment, showed environmental optimization potentials in all transport packaging systems. The assessment of the economic and the social dimensions in parallel is important in order to avoid trade-offs between the three sustainability dimensions. Merging economic and social aspects into a Life Cycle Assessment is becoming more and more important, and their integration into one model ensures a consistent modeling approach for a manageable effort.