Process packaging does more harm to the environment

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Environmentally aware food manufacturers should not only be looking at their packaging material but also in particular at their packaging processes. After all, Thai researchers have discovered, that this is where the most major environmental benefit in terms of packaging can be gained. This explains why retort cups are scarcely more environmentally friendly as a packaging material than cans.

Packaging tuna in synthetic retort cups causes 70% less CO2 emissions than packaging the fish in cans. However, once the associated production processes and the material life cycle are factored into the equation, retort cups are only 10% more environmentally friendly. For that reason it is advisable to look not only at materials but also at processes. This is the advice of scientists from Kasetsart University in Bangkok. 

The researchers at the Thai university calculated the CO2 emissions of three packaging materials suitable for preparing and packaging food in an aseptic manner, in this case tuna. These materials were retort cups (PP and ethylene vinyl acetate), retort pouches (PP, aluminium foil, nylon) and traditional cans (chromium-coated steel with aluminium lid). If one looks only at the production of these materials, retort cups are the undisputed winner: retort pouches and cans produce respectively 60% and 70% more CO2 emissions than is produced by the manufacture of retort cups.

But the researchers also performed a cradle-to-grave life cycle analysis (LCA), and this is shedding different light on the matter. As far as that analysis is concerned, the difference with cans is as little as 10%. According to the researchers, this is not sufficiently significant to make a positive contribution towards combating the greenhouse effect. Furthermore, it is striking that retort pouches have the highest carbon footprint: 22% more CO2 emissions than retort cups.

When processing and packaging tuna, the packaging and related processes are responsible for around 20-40% of overall CO2 emissions. Hotspots in the cradle-to-grave process are the production of the packaging, packaging waste and the sterilization of the products. 

Due to the use of steel, a coating and the aluminium lid, the production of the tuna can has the highest carbon footprint. But further on in the process the balance improves considerably, as far more cans can be filled with tuna simultaneously. Even the good recyclability of the cans is a major factor.

The energy required to sterilize the tuna is also an important factor. Six times as much energy is needed to sterilize tuna in a retort pouch than in a can, and twice as much as in retort cups.

The researchers state that it is not only the choice of packaging material that counts, but also the processes. The CO2 advantage that the manufacture of synthetic materials has reduces if adjacent processes have not been optimized.

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