Carbon Footprint of Canned Vegetables Vs Fresh: Measuring Vegetable Emissions

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | May 2, 2024

Woman looking at food wonders about the carbon footprint of canned vegetables vs fresh and how to calculate canned food carbon footprint and measure the emissions from making canned vegetables and food.

Vegetables are loaded with vitamins and nutrients and are a much more sustainable food choice than meat products; however, most people don’t stop and think about the carbon footprint of canned vegetables.

The truth is everything we consume has a carbon footprint, even veggies.

While the environmental damage is far less than other food products, it’s still worth diving into to understand the impact canned veggies have on the world around us.

Figuring out how to calculate carbon footprint manually can be difficult because most food manufacturers don’t publish reports about carbon emissions or solid waste; however, we can still outline the environmental impact.

So what’s better, frozen or canned vegetables? Are you better off buying chilled vegetables?

The answers depend on a lot of factors, but the carbon footprint of canned vegetables can be calculated, and the results may surprise you.

Assessing the Carbon Footprint of Canned Vegetables Throughout the Product Lifecycle

Assessing the carbon footprint of canned vegetables throughout the product lifecycle can be difficult as most major manufacturers don’t release this information.

However, agriculture makes up about 10% of the total U.S. Greenhouse emissions.2

Plant-based products are better for the environment than meat and dairy products. Canned vegetable production produces 0.7 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram compared to beef, which produces 70.6 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram.3

However, vegetables, especially canned ones, still have an environmental impact and a negative carbon footprint.

The Carbon Footprint of Canned Vegetables: The Process of Canning Vegetables

Many of us don’t think twice about the environmental impacts of canned vegetables, but the canning process of veggies is fairly resource-intensive.

Since there are many actions associated with mass-producing any product we consume, you can imagine that the carbon footprint of canned vegetables has the potential to run very deep, as a lot of energy and resources go into canning, preserving, and distributing food.

Graphic showing the process of canning vegetables, starting from growing vegetables, to processing and cooking, containerizing, heat sterilization, and finally labeling and distribution.

If you walk down the grocery store aisle, you’ll notice an abundance of canned vegetables on the shelf. Beans, carrots, corn, peas, and tomatoes are some of the most commonly canned products.

While it might seem simple, the process of producing these products is quite involved, but can be broken down into these categories:1

  • Growing Vegetables: Growing and harvesting vegetables before canning.
  • Processing & Cooking Vegetables: Sorting and washing vegetables, adding salt, sugar, or sauces, and cooking them.
  • Containerizing: Cleaning the cans with hot water or steam, placing the prepared vegetables into the cans, acidifying the product, removing air pressure (exhausting), and sealing the lid.
  • Heat Sterilization: Heating the cans to 212° F (via steam or hot water) and then quickly cooling them preserves vegetables and kills microorganisms.
  • Labeling & Distribution: Label designs are created, printed, and applied to cans via glue in a high-speed operation. Packing products in boxes and shipping to grocery stores.
  • Disposal: Once purchased, when you use the product, the disposal of the can, even if it’s recycled, generates emissions.

Processing Canned Vegetables

Processing canned vegetables takes place after they’re harvested. Canned vegetables are washed and cooked and seasonings and sauces are applied.

Below are categories of canned vegetable processing that have a negative environmental impact:

  1. Shipping: Transporting harvested vegetables to processing facilities around the world.
  2. Washing: Mechanically harvested vegetables are thoroughly washed with high-pressure sprays at the processing facility. This requires significant energy and an abundance of water.
  3. Sorting: Some vegetables are sorted for size and maturity, which requires machines/moving screens.
  4. Sourcing Ingredients: Sourcing salts, seasonings, sauces, and other additives that are used in preparing vegetables before canning.

Canning Vegetables

Containerizing or canning vegetables is a significant stage of the product lifecycle, and the carbon footprint of packaging is meaningful.

A graphic showing the steps of canning vegetables, including can manufacturing, shipping, cleaning, followed by exhausting and sealing.

Cans are manufactured from steel and tin, shipped to the processing facility, thoroughly cleaned, and filled with vegetables and some additional ingredients, exhausted, and sealed.

  1. Can Manufacturing: Sourcing tin and steel and using energy to construct cans in bulk.
  2. Shipping: Transporting large quantities of cans to processing facilities, usually by air or diesel truck.
  3. Cleaning: Before vegetables are placed in the cans, the cans are sanitized with hot water and/or steam, which requires a significant amount of energy.
  4. Exhausting & Sealing: A highly important part of containerizing, the cans receive a heat treatment followed by an immediate cooling to eliminate microorganisms before air is removed and the lid is applied. This process requires significant energy and machinery.

While there is a lack of data on emissions related to shipping, exhausting, and cleaning cans, producing 1 tinplate, which is equal to about 46 cans, emits 2.33 kg of CO2 and the average cradle-to-grave carbon footprint of a single aluminum can is 77.1g of CO2 8.8,9

Americans consume hundreds of millions of cans of vegetables every year, and producing cans creates a massive amount of greenhouse gases. Because manufacturing cans can have such an environmental impact, the carbon footprint of canned vegetables tends to be higher than the carbon footprint of potatoes or fresh vegetables.

Labeling, Distribution & Disposal

Once the vegetables are canned, labeling, distribution, & disposal are the last stages of the product lifecycle. Labels are created and applied in bulk, and final products are shipped to point-of-sale locations all over the world.

After consumption, tin cans are recycled or placed in landfills.

  • Advertising: The production of commercials, coupons, and other advertisements related to canned vegetables.
  • Labeling: Labels are designed and printed and labeling machines are used to apply glue and labels at rapid speeds. Printing and glue must be also sourced.
  • Distribution: Transporting canned vegetables to grocery stores in bulk often in diesel trucks (domestically) or by air or sea (internationally).
  • Disposal: Recycling or disposing of the can post-consumption.

Shipping a large box across the country generates 1.82 kg of CO2 emissions, but shipping products around the world generate significantly more. The carbon footprint of imported food is also significant.

Graphic of the final stages of the canned vegetable lifecycle, showing labeling machinery, transportation for distribution, advertising strategies including commercials and coupons, and dispose or recycle cans after use.

Millions of canned vegetables are shipped by air, and when considering air freight vs sea freight carbon footprint, the carbon footprint of air flights is 20 to 30 times more than ships. Millions of boxes of canned vegetables are shipped by truck, air, and sea every year, so these carbon emissions can become quite significant.

Carbon Footprint of Canned Vegetables: Do You Recycle Cans?

Do you recycle cans? Doing so can have major environmental benefits.

It takes a tin/aluminum can more than 50 years to decompose in a landfill, which means canned vegetables can also produce tons of solid waste each year.

The good news is aluminum can recycling could save 98.7g of CO2 emissions,8 which can help to offset the carbon footprint of canned vegetables.

Growing Vegetables and Agriculture Emissions

While it may seem counterintuitive that there is a connection between growing vegetables & agriculture emissions, farming vegetables at a large scale can have significant environmental impacts.

Contributing factors to agricultural emissions graphics showing land clearing, deforestation, fertilizer, and irrigation systems images.

Canned vegetables are grown across hundreds of thousands of acres all over the world and the carbon footprint of agriculture is significant due to the following steps:

  1. Land Clearing: Clearing hundreds of thousands of acres of land to make room to grow crops at scale requires an extensive amount of machines and fuel.
  2. Deforestation: Removing trees during the land clearing and breaking down soil inhibits nature’s ability to absorb carbon.
  3. Fertilizer: The development of synthetic fertilizers requires machines and materials. Transporting it produces carbon emissions by burning fuel.
    These fertilizers produce Nitrous Oxide, a greenhouse gas when applied to soils.4
  4. Irrigation Systems: Growing vegetables requires a massive investment in irrigation systems and millions of gallons of water.

Calculating the precise carbon footprint of growing canned vegetables is difficult due to lack of standardized reporting across the industry; however, a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said agricultural land use and land use changes resulted in 4 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2018.6

If 3% of agricultural land is used for vegetables and 24% of vegetables are canned then clearing land used to grow canned vegetables could produce 24 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.5,7

Canned vs Frozen Vegetables: Frozen Food Packaging and Energy Consumption

Are frozen vegetables better than canned? If you’re deciding between frozen or canned vegetables (or even chilled vegetables), all types have a significant carbon footprint, so which is better for the environment?

Canned vegetables are always the better choice. Tin cans can be recycled and are now made with about 25% recycled material.

Additionally, frozen vegetables require constant energy to maintain freshness. Nearly two percent of total greenhouse gases come from powering refrigerators and freezers alone, impacting the carbon footprint of canned vegetables.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Vegetables

How Does a Can of Vegetables Produce a Carbon Footprint?

While vegetables have smaller carbon footprints than most other food products, the process of growing, processing, containerizing, shipping, and disposing of canned vegetables has a significant environmental impact.

Canning vs Freezing Vegetables: Which Is Better for the Environment?

Canned vegetables can be easily recycled and don’t require constant energy to maintain freshness. When it comes to canned veggies vs frozen, canned is always a better environmental choice.

How Does Preserving Vegetables Impact the Environment?

To preserve canned vegetables, the cans need to be heated and quickly cooled, and air needs to be removed before they’re sealed, which requires a lot of energy.

Are Tin Cans Recyclable?

Yes, about 25% of tin cans are produced with recycled materials today.

If You Can Recycle Cans, Doesn’t That Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Canned Vegetables?

Aluminum can recycling is important. A single recycled can save 97.8 of carbon emissions; however, given the significant amount of resources required to manufacture and ship a can of vegetables, the carbon footprint is still negative.


1United States Environmental Protection Agency. (1995, August). Canned Fruits And Vegetables. EPA. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

2United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, November 16). Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. EPA. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

3United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2024). Food and Climate Change: Healthy diets for a healthier planet. United Nations. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

4Joiner, T. and Joiner, M. (2023, September 8). Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions 101. Resource for the future. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

5USDA Census of Agriculture (2019, August). Farms and Farmland. USDA. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

6Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2021). Emissions due to agriculture Global, regional and country trends 2000–2018. FAO. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

7United States Department of Agriculture (2010, October). Canned Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in the United States. USDA. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

8The Aluminium Association. (2014). Aluminum Can Life Cycle Assessment Report Overview. The Aluminium Association. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>

9APEAL. (2012, March 4). Life Cycle Assessment on tinplate reveals 9% less carbon emissions over 2. APEAL. Retrieved December 30, 2023, from <>