As COP26 demonstrated, most of the public debate around greenhouse gas emissions tends to focus on the energy sector, although other segments of the global economy (such as agriculture) also have an oversized environmental footprint. This is no less important because of the supply chains behind these industries, which include processing, packaging, transportation, consumption and waste.

In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), agricultural supply chains have a larger climate footprint than agriculture itself, even though 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,” according to FAO Chief Economist Máximo Torero .

The environmental cost of globalization

In our increasingly globalized economy, the energy needed to ship products across countries and continents is now a major contributor to climate change. The global shipping industry, for example, emits more carbon each year than Germany.

Although shipping emissions were not included in the Paris Agreement, the industry’s carbon footprint (which accounts for about 3% of global emissions today) could increase to 17% of total annual CO2 emissions by mid-century , according to some analysts.

Shipping companies themselves are now calling on governments to impose new taxes on the industry, hoping that such action will encourage the adoption of innovative fuel-saving technologies and retrofitting older ships to make them more energy-efficient. And shipping is not alone when it comes to the growing carbon footprint of supply chains.

The packaging industry’s environmental footprint, however, is most evident in the form of plastic pollution reaching the world’s oceans, but the sector also plays an important role in increasing global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to FAO, packaging They are responsible for ​​5% of all CO2 emissions from the agri-food sector, as well as from transport. To reduce these emissions, experts say, the packaging industry can adopt practices to extend product life and reduce food waste, while contributing to a truly circular economy.

“With a world population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, the demand for food continues to grow, but the world currently wastes a third of the food it produces due to inefficient production and preservation practices. Lack of infrastructure in developing and developed countries “Unsustainable consumption practices”, warns the World Economic Forum.

“From farmers to processors, packers, distributors and consumers around the world, we must review how we approach, produce and consume food to adhere to the ‘healthy diet for the planet.’ These shared approaches are particularly critical as the world enters the era of post-pandemic recovery,” he adds.

Switch to reusable

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

Similar to ​​reusable alternatives to single-use food packaging, many types of industrial packaging (such as steel and plastic drums) can also be easily cleaned and reused, generating substantial savings and carbon savings compared to the Recycling process.

As pointed out last year a scientific article from researchers at the Universities of Utrecht and Twente, in the Netherlands, reusable steel drums cost companies 3-4 times less than disposable alternatives over their lifetime, with greenhouse emissions around 70 % smaller.

Obviously, companies handling this type of industrial packaging need an effective regulatory framework to justify reconditioning drums and intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) rather than simply selling them for scrap. Although individual countries such as Germany have implemented such regulations, Europe as a whole has not been able to harmonize the way these types of packaging products are treated across the EU, making industrial reusable packaging ‘waste’ ‘ and discarded.

With the European Commission currently working to update its waste transport regulations and its packaging and packaging waste directive, the EU has the opportunity to keep millions of drums and containers in use and out of waste, taking another step towards a truly circular economy. .

Reduce production along with consumption

At the same time, intensified reuse and recycling must be combined with reduced production of so-called “virgin” products, to prevent ever-increasing quantities of new products from burdening the environment. “If demand for plastics continues on its current trajectory, global volumes of plastic waste would grow from 260 million tons per year in 2016 to 460 million tons per year in 2030, taking what is already a serious environmental problem to a level. for real. Completely new,” explains McKinsey. & Company, a management consulting firm in the United States.

Fortunately, McKinsey has also found that recycling more discarded plastics around the world (especially among the world’s biggest polluters such as China and other East Asian countries) can still have a big impact, projecting that “…the reuse of plastics can increase up to 50 percent of plastics produced by 2030, assuming an oil price of $75 per barrel and an effective regulatory framework reinforced by supportive behavior from other industry stakeholders and consumers,” said McKinsey & Company.

New findings from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation confirm this trend, in determining that 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 reduce new plastic usage by almost 20% by 2025, equivalent to 8 million tons of plastic and 40 million barrels of oil.

Policy makers and industry participants will clearly need to rethink not only how food products are produced, but also how they are shipped and stored. Reducing this often overlooked but rapidly growing source of greenhouse gas emissions represents another important step towards a carbon-neutral global economy.

By Sustainability Times. Article in English

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