The Role of Food and Beverage Packaging in Limiting Climate Change

Increasing the use of renewable feedstock in food and beverage packaging is an important part of the solution to climate change.

The Paris Climate Change Agreement one year later 

It has been almost a year since the Paris Climate Change Agreement was adopted in December of 2015.  The agreement set out a goal and initiated a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.  

It took most of 2016 for the Agreement to be signed and ratified and the Agreement did not enter into force until November 4, 2016.  Key to this process was a joint ceremony on April 22, 2016 in which President Obama of the United States, and President Xi Jinping of China signed and ratified the Agreement on behalf of their respective countries.  The US and China are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet.

Turning aspiration into action

So now the hard work begins – turning aspirations of the Paris Climate Change Agreement into action.  This was the focus of COP22.  COP stands for the “Conference of the Parties,” which is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and 2016 was the 22nd annual convening of this Conference.  This year’s conference focused on actions to achieve the priorities of The Paris Agreement – specifically action items related to adaptation, transparency, technology transfer, mitigation, capacity building and loss and damages.  

Perhaps you were even unaware of COP22 this year as it convened in Marrakech Morocco on November 7 and concluded November 18, 2016.  The U.S. election took place one day after COP22 convened, and there was scarcely mention of it, at least in the U.S. media, as the election results have dominated much of the news throughout the rest of the conference.   

On Wednesday November 16 over 300 U.S. businesses released an open letter to president-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. congress at COP22, calling on them to support the process going forward from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.  Tetra Pak was one of the leading signatories to this letter.  Furthermore, Tetra Pak is committed to doing its part to realize the Paris Agreement’s commitment because ultimately the individual company and individual consumer must make changes, otherwise goals and governmental plans are just ephemeral aspirations with no accomplishment.

Food and beverage packaging’s role

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is in the process of investigating the environmental footprint of a variety of foods, understanding that food production, processing, distribution, and wastage are responsible for significant impacts.  The foods to be considered in these reviews include tomatoes, wine, pork, beer, coffee, citrus fruit and juices, and fish from freshwater aquaculture.  So far the DEQ’s contractor, the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, has conducted literature reviews and produced draft summaries for two foods, tomatoes and wine, and the results show that:

  1. Packaging contributes to the overall environmental impacts of the food and beverage industry; and
  2. Packaging choices can make a significant difference in greenhouse gas impacts of the food and beverage industry.  

For example, the analysis of the environmental impacts of wine consumption, from vineyard to end-of-life management of the empty package, found that production of the most common primary packaging for wine is responsible for 33 percent of wine’s GHG entire footprint.  It also found that packaging wine in aseptic cartons provides the best reduction in GHGs, achieving an 81 percent reduction of packaging footprint compared to the most common package format used.

Apart from the direct GHG footprint of producing the package itself, some types of packaging can eliminate the need for refrigeration until the package is opened, saving energy and reducing product spoilage.  And any package that reduces food losses from spoilage saves greenhouse gasses and other environmental impacts along the entire food production and use chain, far magnifying the impact of the package itself.

Finally, there is the consideration of using packaging made from renewable materials versus non-renewable ones.  Conservation International’s (CI’s) Business and Sustainability Council took a deeper look at the connection between renewable materials use and climate change in its paper “Exploring The Link Between Renewable Materials And Climate Change Mitigation.” CI found that renewable materials increase natural carbon stock, reduce energy intensity, and result in more resilient landscapes.  Tetra Pak is proud that in 2015, 100 percent of our paperboard is Forest Stewardship Council™(FSC™)- chain of custody certified and come from controlled sources, and to the extent that is feasible , Tetra Pak uses  bio-based caps and protective coatings made from plastics derived from renewable sugarcane.  Tetra Pak’s ambition  is to have an aseptic package that is fully renewable without any compromise on food protection  In addition to incremental environmental improvements done to Tetra Pak carton packages, our support to customers offering highly energy performing filling machines, equipment as well as energy audits will help to reduce further the CO2 impacts in our value chain.

Concluding thoughts

Unless efforts are made to reverse current greenhouse gas trends, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects the 1.5°C threshold may be exceeded within the next ten years, and the 2°C threshold could be exceeded between 2040 and 2060. Governmental policy approaches take time to put into place, so it is important for all companies and individual consumers to consider what actions they can take now to limit climate change. Not all packaging is created equal, and increasing the use of renewable feedstock in food and beverage packaging is an important part of the solution.


Author: Elisabeth Comere – Director, Environment & Government Affairs, Tetra Pak Inc.

Elisabeth Comere is the Director of Environment & Government Affairs at Tetra Pak. Working out of the United States since 2010, Elisabeth is responsible for advancing Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in both the U.S. and Canada and oversees numerous industry and customer packaging sustainability initiatives. Elisabeth joined Tetra Pak in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe, where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental and carton recycling strategies. Prior to joining Tetra Pak, Elisabeth served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the Environment Department of the Food & Drink industry group in Europe. Elisabeth was educated in France, the United Kingdom and Belgium. She graduated as a lawyer from Law School of Bordeaux University (France) and earned an Environmental Sciences Master from Brussels University (Belgium).

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