Carbon Footprint of Packaging: Calculate Packaging Footprint for Food, Products

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

Carbon Offsets Credits | March 15, 2024

Couple looking at carbon footprint of packaging from cardboard boxes and wonders how plastic and cardboard packaging materials effect the environment, packaging footprint measurements, and eco friendly options for packaging.

The carbon footprint of packaging refers to the total carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses created over the life cycle of a packaging product. This amount is expressed as pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

A packaging footprint includes the generated greenhouse gasses in raw materials manufacturing, packaging system fabrication, transport of materials, and the complete product.1

Additionally, the carbon footprint of packaging takes into account the use phase including reuse, refurbishment, and disposal at the end of life.

So, calculating the real amount for the carbon footprint of packaging used for food, products, and everything in between can be a little tricky.

The following guide explains what is a carbon footprint, how to calculate the carbon footprint of packaging, including the packaging of food and other products, and provides actionable methods that you can use right now to eliminate and reduce the emissions generated by packaging.

How To Calculate Carbon Footprint of Packaging

There’s no doubt that climate change has become the biggest global issue.

Many scientists argue that since the industrial revolution, temperatures have risen by 1 degree Celsius and the world is experiencing the highest atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in all of the earth’s history.1,7

Others dispute those facts, pointing to natural geological factors for increases in temperatures around the world, such as the Tonga volcano eruption in 2022 which has increased water vapor in the atmosphere 30 percent, which increases global temperatures.

Businesses and other organizations can contribute to mitigating climate change by offsetting their carbon footprint.

Though it’s difficult to know where to start, it’s the small things that make the biggest difference, and the packaging of products is a great place to begin.

First, you need to understand the emissions of carbons associated with how you package your products.

Emissions breakdown graphic showing scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 emissions.

Next, you need to learn how to calculate the carbon footprint of packaging and then the guide will give you some tools on how to reduce and offset the carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint of Packaging: How To Calculate Scope 1-3 CO2e Emissions?

The next step is to learn how to calculate scope 1-3 CO2e emissions.

You can do this in a number of ways, but you should use a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) as it’s the most common.11 LCAs are divided into two: Economic Input-Output (EIO) LCAs, and process LCAs.

The main difference between process LCAs and EIO LCAs is that the former builds your footprint from the ground up while the latter takes a top-down approach.

Process LCAs involve tracing the making and selling of all your company’s products as well as all of the business operations such as snacks, utilities, office supplies, and travel, of your company. You track everything backward through manufacturing and transit until you get to the extraction of raw materials.

From the extraction of raw materials, you track it forward and calculate the impact of emissions based on the upstream of the real world and downstream of supply chains and disposal.3

For instance, if the end of the product is a landfill, after a lifespan of two years, you also include the decay releasing CO2 and methane in your carbon footprint calculation.

If, for example, you consider something like company travel, you will have to include the share of the fuel burned by the passenger and also the snacks they ate, and the embedded emissions of the plane through the fractional percent of the total use of the plane that your employee used.

Process LCA is the most in-depth of the two LCAs. However, it needs a third party and can cost tens of thousands of dollars and it takes months.

Process LCA is so granular that it often undershoots emissions by as much as 49%. This model leakage is inevitable with this approach because you cannot possibly track every singular aspect of potential emissions.

Alternatively, you can use the EIO model which takes a top-down approach to calculating emissions

It looks at the economic value of the business or products and uses a sector or factors that influence material-specific emissions to give a high-level estimate of your carbon footprint.

You can think of EIO LCA as looking at the total industry’s GDP and carbon footprint. Then using this information to create an emissions factor per every dollar of economic activity.

Each country has its own specific model methodologies. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has the Producer Price Index, while the EPA has the United States Environmentally Extended Input-Output model (USEEIO).

A graphic that shows the life cycle assessment such as resources, processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, and end of life.

Two major advantages of the EIO model over the process LCA model are that the former is cheaper and has very little leakage.

However, a major disadvantage is that it’s agnostic to specifics about business practices and the company’s supply chain since it only considers averages.

Additionally, the EIO model is geographically specific which makes calculations using the model creepy in a global economy.

This model also does not include any incidental GHG sequestration. Even though they are marginal, most life cycles of various products have incidental sequestration and plant-based products such as paper have very significant incidental sequestration.

For products like paper, the emissions released at the end of life are predominantly offset by the carbon sequestered by the growth of the tree or plant. The EIO model does not factor in this sequestration so the paper performs better overall than it would appear.

Despite its numerous disadvantages, experts recommend using the USEEIO model to calculate your carbon footprint for packaging because it shows your current carbon footprint and any specific areas where there’s a need for improvement.

This guide uses this model to calculate the carbon footprint of packaging but you need to bear in mind that this is only a small portion of the company’s overall carbon footprint

Calculating the Carbon Footprint of Packaging: Step-By-Step Process

In this case, a hypothetical company ‘Better Shipment’ will be used.

At the moment, the Better Shipment company spends $1.43 on corrugated boxes that are domestically produced and ships about 10,000 units every month. An EIO calculation based on the USEEIO model will be used.9

$1.43 per box x 120,000 boxes per year= $171,602 per year.

The first step is to convert the annual box spending of Better Shipment to millions of dollars. The $171,602 will become $0,1716 million. The category will be greenhouse gasses and how to run the model.

The results indicate that the CO2e impact of Better Shipment on their annual box spending is 138 tons. As a result, it would take 180 acres of forest cover to sequester that much CO2e every year.

138 tones ÷ $171,600 annual spending on corrugated boxes = 1.78 pounds of CO2e for every dollar spent.

You can scale the model easily as the company expands, by adding up the CO2e impact of each dollar that Better Shipment spends on corrugated boxes. You divide the annual tons of CO2e by the annual spend of $171,600 which results in a factor of 1.78 lbs of CO2e per dollar the company spends on corrugate.

You’ll also find this factor useful when comparing average emissions across other packaging categories and you can use this information to make better decisions.

A screenshot of an article from the Environmental Protection Agency showing the US Environmentally-Extended Input-Output Models.

(Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency14)

For example, if Better Shipment is considering using China-made poly mailers instead of domestic boxes you can add other additional factors and compare the CO2e between the two products.

The tool listed above is US-specific, therefore you will need additional information to get a rough sense of how production in China compares to the US.

In this case, you can use the GHG per dollar of Gross Domestic Product of China. Using this factor, you can observe that China emits about 4 times GHG per dollar of economic value than the US.

Then the calculations will be:

1.78 pounds of CO2e per dollar spent on corrugated boxes made in the US x 4 = 7.02 pounds of CO2e/dollar spent in corrugated boxes made in China.

To get a rough estimate of corrugated boxes made in China, you multiply the number by 4. However, if you wanted a higher fidelity number, you could look for China-specific data.

It’s even better if you use a CO2 calculator that breaks out contributing sectors. In this case, you’ll be able to identify areas where you can improve the footprint of your supply chain.

Types of Packaging Materials: How Do Various Packaging Materials Affect the Environment?

Companies perform audits and life cycle analyses to identify areas they can improve in when it comes to reducing the total amount of CO2 emitted.4

One great place to start is the impacts of your company’s packaging since a lot of CO2 is emitted through the sourcing of material, its production and transportation as well as its disposal as the product comes to the end of its life.

Each company can play its part in cutting out toxic emissions and at the same time, providing its customers eco-friendly solutions that are highly desirable.

Companies should implement more automation in the packaging process, use sustainable packaging materials that have lower impacts, and analyze carbon footprints.

The type of packaging material affects a company’s CO2 emissions. Each packaging form utilizes lots of resources like fibers, wood, minerals, petroleum, chemicals, water, and energy in its production process.

Manufacturing of these materials often generates emissions such as heavy metals, greenhouse gasses, and particulates, not to mention sludge and/or wastewater that contains toxic contaminants.

Carbon Footprint of Cardboard Packaging

It’s easy to calculate the carbon footprint of cardboard packaging because it’s one of the most used and environmentally friendly packaging materials.5

Corrugated cardboard is built from paper pulp which is a natural material made of timber. Cardboard packaging is eco-friendly because it can be recycled over and over again to create more cardboard packaging.

As a result, this packaging material reduces carbon emissions and saves trees in the process.

It’s important to note that not all cardboard is recyclable. It depends on the capabilities of the local recycling plant.

Even with this handicap, it still remains an energy-efficient packaging material. Since cardboard is made of recycled materials, it typically uses less energy in the production process.

Additionally, since cardboard is usually sourced from local materials, the transportation cost and emissions are significantly less than other traditional packaging materials such as plastic.

You’d be surprised to know that the total carbon footprint of a cardboard box from the beginning of its life to the end is 2.07 lbs CO2e/ lb. For flat cardboard, the total carbon footprint is 3.37 lbs CO2e/lb.

This carbon footprint is much smaller than other traditional packaging materials such as Styrofoam or plastic.

You should note that in the production of cardboard packaging, some are bleached while others use additional inks for labels. These factors contribute to the overall environmental impact of cardboard and ought to be considered when performing an audit or a life cycle analysis.

Carbon Footprint of Plastic Packaging

There’s no doubt that plastic packaging is one of the biggest polluters in oceans and landfills.

In fact, the production of one pound of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic results in three pounds of CO2 emissions.6,12

Besides the production process, other minor details such as the transportation of plastic contribute significantly to their carbon footprint.

To put it into perspective, you can look at the life cycle of a simple plastic package. The materials of plastic packaging originate from resins derived from natural gas, petroleum, or oil.

First, you will need to transport these source materials to the manufacturer by truck, train, or shipping container. If the transportation is over a long distance, more fuel will be used and more CO2 will be emitted into the air.

Second, the raw material is taken into the production stage.

Once the resins reach the manufacturer, they are heated up and molded to create the packaging products. The manufacturer uses lots of energy to create different forms of plastic that serve various purposes.

Once the packaging is made, it has to be cleaned before the product is placed inside the packaging. Then the packaging is stored in a warehouse before being transported to its final destination.

These last processes can be done either manually or through an automated process depending on the company’s scale.

Even though manual processes seem like they would use less energy, experts recommend automation because they can monitor energy usage and reduce the amount of waste produced creating a significantly smaller carbon footprint.

An image of plastic bottles washed up to the shore while a man on the background is picking up trash.

(Image: Brian Yurasits15)

After you’ve done everything, the plastic packaging reaches the end user who disposes it at their will.

The disposal process produces more waste as plastic material takes decades to break down in landfills. Plastics and other petroleum-based products sit in landfills and release harmful greenhouse gasses such as methane and carbon dioxide.

Based on the life cycle of plastic packaging, it’s safe to infer that plastic packaging contributes a lot to a company’s carbon footprint. Therefore, you should turn to other environmentally friendly solutions to offset total CO2 emissions.

Innovation in Packaging: Biodegradable Packaging

Researchers and experts alike have made great strides in innovation in packaging. One such example is biodegradable packaging.8

The carbon footprint of packaging for a company that uses biodegradable packaging is way less than that of a company that uses plastic. This packaging can be easily broken down by microorganisms such as algae, fungi, and bacteria.

Biodegradable material can decompose and revert to its natural state. Therefore, biodegradable packaging should transform entirely into natural elements within a short period after disposal, usually a year or less.

One other example of innovation in packaging is compostable packaging. Just like biodegradable packaging, compostable packaging returns safely to the earth.

The stark difference between these two packaging materials is that compostable materials replenish the soil with nutrients.

They also require certain conditions for composting whereas biodegradable materials can decompose easily in landfills.

Examples of Biodegradable Packaging

Many brands and consumers today use biodegradable packaging. Its market in 2022 was assessed to be at $4.65 billion in 2019 and will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 17% by 2025.

Some common biodegradable materials used in packaging include:

Cornstarch

This material originates from corn or maize plants. It possesses characteristics similar to plastic and can be used in various applications such as loose-film packaging, molded shapes, and bottles.

Many companies favor this material because it’s sustainable, affordable, and easy to produce. Additionally, the packaging made of cornstarch decomposes into carbon dioxide and water after just a few months if it’s disposed of properly.

Mushroom

Mushroom packaging is produced by cleaning and powdering agricultural waste, then joining them together by the matrix of mushroom roots known as mycelium.

You can create the desired shape using basic materials. After the material dries up, it can be used as eco-friendly food packaging.

Seaweed

This packaging is made of Agar, which is a substance in many types of algae and seaweeds. The material is frozen to form a rigid film-like state which is then squeezed to form a soft cushioning agent.

Since seaweed is a great sustainable raw material, its packaging is very appealing to the environment. Additionally, it biodegraded in the soil in about six weeks.

Cellulose

This is biodegradable packaging made of either cotton or wood. It reduces the generation of trash and offers superior durability and printability.

An uncoated cellulose film takes 28 to 60 days to decompose and a coated one takes 3 to four months making them an excellent biodegradable material.

Sugarcane

This alternative and low-impact material comes from sugar cane fibers known as bagasse.
Usually, once the sugar cane juice is extracted, sugar-making companies dispose of the by-products or incinerate them for fuel. However, you can use the remaining pulp in the packaging industry to create a strong flexible material similar to polyethylene plastic.

To create this packaging material, bagasse is mixed with water to create a pulp that has similar characteristics to wood pulp. Then you apply heat and pressure to mold it into whatever shame is needed.

Hemp Packaging

Hemp is both biodegradable and compostable packaging. It’s a very eco-friendly natural product.

The hemp crop requires little fertilizer, pesticides, and water to produce a high yield. It can grow in any soil type meaning you can plant it locally.

The plant grows to maturity after four months and it’s great for the soil.
Hemp is carbon neutral because one ton of hemp absorbs 1.5 tons of CO2. It absorbs more carbon than it emits, making them suitable for companies that are looking to offset their emissions.

Footprint Packaging: Carbon Neutral Packaging

Carbon neutral packaging is a process where the amount of carbon dioxide a packaging releases during its life-cycle, is balanced by either the same amount or more of carbon dioxide being offset or removed elsewhere in the packaging process.13

All in all, the company should have a net-zero carbon footprint in its packaging.

This means that the emitted carbon brought about by the lifecycle of the packaging material, has been calculated, minimized, then offset.

A graphic that shows carbon offsetting and the relationship between releasing of CO2 into the atmosphere and reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.

A carbon offset refers to a way of compensating for CO2 emissions that are unavoidable by funding elsewhere an equivalent CO2 saving.

Carbon offset projects should include more than planting trees. Companies should invest in projects that create wider benefits on top of carbon reduction such as food security, education, jobs, biodiversity, and the health and well-being of locals.

To reduce the carbon footprint of packaging and reach a carbon-neutral state, you should also take into account the raw materials used. Even though it’s cheaper to source raw materials than recycled materials, using the latter helps break the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ approach.

Carbon Emissions

Before learning how to calculate the carbon footprint of packaging, you need to understand the overall term, carbon emissions.

First, you must know that carbon dioxide is an example of a greenhouse gas (GHG).10

GHGs trap heat on the Earth when they are released into the atmosphere. This heat should dissipate into space, instead, it stays on the Earth increasing the atmospheric temperature.

While carbon dioxide is the most widely emitted GHG, it’s not the only one out there.

One other gas is Methane or CH4, which has 21 times the global warming potential than the old regular carbon dioxide. Methane results from materials from landfills decomposing among other sources.

To measure the total potential of a GHG for warming, you need to take into account all gasses involved and compare their impact to the same amount of carbon dioxide over a fixed time period.

After which, you convert the GHGs into a carbon dioxide equivalent so that you generate a single number. This number is what is known as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

Carbon dioxide equivalent refers to the total equivalent of carbon dioxide of all greenhouse gasses.2 Therefore, you can use GHG and CO2e interchangeably.

Experts measure CO2e in tons. Similarly, experts calculate GHG potential, as the estimate of temperature change, or the amount of warming that CO2 released into the atmosphere, will cause in over 100 years.

How Do You Measure Total GHG Potential?

Now that you know that CO2e is the total equivalent of carbon dioxide of all greenhouse gasses, the question comes up, how do you measure total GHG potential?

You can break down the total GHG emissions of a company into three parts known as scopes. It’s crucial to know the scope you are referring to any time you consider emissions.

For instance, if a company says they are carbon neutral, they are only referring to the first and second scopes. However, you need to cover all three scopes to attain true carbon neutrality.

These scopes include:

  • Direct Emissions
    These are the emissions created directly by the company via things like boiler combustion and company vehicles. Most companies buy electricity rather than making their own and this makes direct emissions the smallest scope among the three.
  • Energy Indirect Emissions
    These emissions originate from the energy that the company purchases for direct use, this could include energy purchased for things like in-house fulfillment centers or energy needed to run the office.
  • Other Indirect Emissions
    These are the end-of-life, downstream, and upstream indirect emissions that the company is responsible for. This is the largest scope among the three and also the most abstract and hardest to track.
    The third scopes measure basically all other embedded emissions produced in your product manufacturing supply chain. This starts from the extraction of raw materials, continues to processing and final manufacturing and ends in the distribution of your warehouse.

It’s important to note that the carbon footprint tends to expand exponentially from one scope to the next. Therefore it’s important to include the third scope when calculating your emissions to prevent grossly underestimating your carbon footprint and climate impact.

To summarize, carbon dioxide emissions are among the biggest threats to the environment.

Many companies and individuals are taking action toward minimizing their carbon footprints.

Companies are starting to see the carbon footprint of packaging as one of the biggest contributors to this crisis and are taking steps to reduce it by using alternative packaging materials.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Packaging

What Are Some Eco Friendly Materials for Packaging?

The best eco-friendly materials for packaging are biodegradable materials such as cornstarch or cellulose, or compostable material such as hemp.

Can a Recycled Cardboard Box Be Recycled Again?

Yes, the pulp from the recycled cardboard can be used over and over again.

How Can Packaging Food Companies Reduce Their Carbon Footprint?

They can look for alternative packaging for food. For example using biodegradable packaging instead of plastic.

How to Calculate Carbon Footprint Manually?

You can calculate the carbon footprint manually by multiplying the unit of business operation to the specific emission factor of that operation, providing a clear answer to the question of “how to calculate carbon footprint manually?”

What Is a Carbon Emissions Calculator?

A carbon emissions calculator helps you calculate the total emissions produced by a certain product or activity.

Where Can You Get a Business Carbon Footprint Calculator?

Numerous third-party websites provide different business carbon footprint calculator, enabling companies to assess their environmental impact accurately.

Is There a Difference in Carbon Footprint of Packaging When You Consider Carbon Footprint of Paper Vs. Plastic?

Yes. When comparing the carbon footprint of paper vs plastic, it is evident that plastic packaging leaves a significantly larger environmental footprint than paper does.

Can You Explain Plastic Carbon Footprint?

Plastic carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon produced during the production and life-cycle of a plastic product.


References

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2Binkoski, D. (2020, April 24). How to Estimate the Carbon Footprint of Your Packaging. Lumi Blog. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from <https://www.lumi.com/blog/how-to-estimate-the-carbon-footprint-of-your-packaging>

3Senard, M. (2023). Why Commit to Reducing the Climate Impact of Packaging? Climate Collaborative. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from <https://www.climatecollaborative.com/packaging>

4Epac. (2023). How to Calculate the Carbon Footprint of Packaging. Epac. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from <https://epacflexibles.com/how-to-calculate-the-carbon-footprint-of-packaging/>

5Feber, D. (2021, July 28). True Packaging Sustainability: Understanding the Performance Trade-offs. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from <https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/paper-forest-products-and-packaging/our-insights/true-packaging-sustainability-understanding-the-performance-trade-offs>

6Teorra. (2023, January 16). What is the Carbon Footprint of Packaging? Teorra. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from <https://www.teorra.info/blog/what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-packaging>

7Lindsey, R. (2023, May 12). Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. NOAA Climate.Gov. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from <https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide>

8Song, J. H., Murphy, R. J., Narayan, R., & Davies, G.B. H. (2009, July 27). Biodegradable and compostable alternatives to conventional plastics. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873018/>

9U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2023). US Environmentally-Extended Input-Output (USEEIO) Models. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from <https://www.epa.gov/land-research/us-environmentally-extended-input-output-useeio-models>

10U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, April 13). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases>

11U.S. General Services Administration. (2023). Life Cycle Assessment. Sustainable Facilities Tool. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from <https://sftool.gov/plan/400/life-cycle-assessment>

12Wikipedia. (2023, June 20). Polyethylene terephthalate. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate>

13Wikipedia. (2023, July 9). Carbon neutrality. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_neutrality>

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15Brian Yurasits. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/43upsZNmy9Q>