When supply chains do more climate damage than products themselves

19 November 2021

Photo: Pixabay/Tumisu

As demonstrated by the COP26, most public debate surrounding greenhouse gas emissions tends to focus on the energy sector, even though other segments of the global economy (like agriculture) also have an oversized carbon footprint. That is not least because of the supply chains behind these industries, which include processing, packaging, transport, consumption, and waste.

In fact, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agricultural supply chains have a bigger climate footprint than farming itself, even as the food and agriculture sector as a whole accounted for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Since 1990, a key trend has been “the increasingly important role of food-related emissions generated outside of agricultural land, in pre- and post-production processes along food supply chains, at all scales,” per FAO chief economist Maximo Torero.

The environmental cost of globalization

In our increasingly globalized economy, the energy required to ship products between countries and continents is now a major contributor to climate change. The global maritime shipping industry, for example, emits more carbon per year than Germany. Although emissions from maritime shipping have not been factored into the Paris Agreement, the industry’s carbon footprint (which stands at around 3% of global emissions at present) could balloon to as much as 17% of total annual CO2 emissions by mid-century, according to some analysts.

Shipping companies themselves are now calling on governments to levy new taxes on the industry, hoping such action will incentivize the adoption of innovative technologies that save fuel and the retrofitting of older ships to make them more energy efficient. And shipping is hardly alone when it comes to the growing carbon footprints of supply chains.

The environmental footprint of the packaging industry, for its part, is most apparent in the form of plastic pollution washing into the world’s oceans, but the sector also has a major role in driving up global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the FAO, packaging is responsible for 5% of all the CO2 emissions from the food and agriculture sector, as much as transport. To reduce those emissions, experts say, the packaging industry can adopt practices to increase the shelf life of products and reduce food waste while contributing to a truly circular economy.

“With the global population projected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, demand for food continues to grow, yet the world currently wastes a third of the food it produces due to inefficient production and preservation practices from developing countries’ lack of infrastructure, and developed countries’ unsustainable consumption practices,” the World Economic Forum warns.

“From farmers to processors to packers to distributors to consumers around the world, we must overhaul the way we approach, produce and consume food to adhere to the ‘planetary health diet.’ These shared approaches are particularly critical as the world transitions to the post-pandemic recovery era,” it adds.

Shifting to reusables

Encouragingly, more and more companies are embarking on new packaging models with the aim of reducing their environmental and carbon footprints. Researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands working with some of these companies have found that reusable glass bottles produce 85% fewer carbon emissions compared to a single-use glass bottle, emit 75% less carbon than plastic (PET), and emit 57% less carbon than aluminium cans.

Packaging and storage can leave a vast environmental footprint (photo: Pixabay/delphinmedia)

Much like reusable alternatives for single-use food packaging, many types of industrial packaging (like steel and plastic drums) can also simply be cleaned and reused as well, generating substantial financial and carbon savings compared to the recycling process.

As a scientific paper from researchers at the universities of Utrecht and Twente in the Netherlands pointed out last year, reusable steel drums cost businesses 3-4 times less than single-use alternatives over the course of their life cycle, with greenhouse gas emissions that are roughly 70% lower.

Of course, the businesses handling these types of industrial packaging need an effective regulatory framework to justify reconditioning drums and intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) as opposed to simply selling them off for scrap metal. While individual countries such as Germany have put such regulations into place, Europe as a whole has not been able to harmonize how these types of packaging products are handled EU-wide, leading reusable industrial packaging to be considered “waste” and thrown away instead.

With the European Commission currently working to update both its Waste Shipments Regulation and its Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, the EU has an opportunity to keep millions more drums and containers in use and out of the scrapheap, taking another step forward towards a truly circular economy.

Reducing production alongside consumption

At the same time, stepped-up reuse and recycling needs to be paired with reduced production of so-called “virgin” products, to prevent ballooning quantities of new products from overwhelming the environment. “If plastics demand follows its current trajectory, global plastics-waste volumes would grow from 260 million tons per year in 2016 to 460 million tons per year by 2030, taking what is already a serious environmental problem to a whole new level,” explains McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm in the United States.

Fortunately, McKinsey also found recycling more discarded plastics worldwide (especially among the world’s biggest polluters, such as China and other East Asian nations) can still make an important impact, projecting that “…plastics reuse could rise to as much as 50 percent of plastics production by 2030, assuming a $75-a-barrel oil price and an effective regulatory framework reinforced by supportive behavior from other industry stakeholders and consumers,” McKinsey & Company says.

New findings from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation confirm that trend, determining the use of virgin plastics by major global brands such as Nestlé, Unilever, and PepsiCo has already peaked, and that these companies are on track to cut their use of new plastic by nearly 20% between now and 2025, the equivalent of 8 million tons of plastic and 40 million barrels of oil.

Policymakers and industry players will clearly need to rethink not only how food products are produced, but also how they are shipped and stored. Curbing this oft-neglected but rapidly growing source of greenhouse gas emissions represents another important step towards a carbon-neutral global economy.

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