Packaging and Distribution

Energy and Environmental Policy

The author

The author

Note on Packaging, S F Bush, 4th June 2007

Hydrocarbon derived polymer (plastics) packaging is a major target of the greens who generally confuse the energy use issue with the litter problem.

Key points are:

  • 80% by weight of all polymer packaging is used in the food industry, mainly film for solid foods and bottles for drinks.
  • Polymer packaging accounts for 1.6% of oil consumption in the Western economies.
  • Food-chain losses in countries with modern packaging systems based on bottles and film are around 2-3% from producer to end-user; in Soviet Russia it was estimated at 20-25%; in the Third World current losses in the food-chain are around 40-50%.

Inputs along the food-chain may be compared directly using their metabolic and fuel equivalents as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Energy inputs into the food-chain in GJ (= 280 kWh) per person per year
Growing food Processing & distribution Packaging Total input to food-chain Ingested by consumer
11 17 1.4 29.4 4

From Table 1 we can see that a mere 5% further saving on the food-chain through reduction in waste pays for all packaging used.

Traditional alternatives to plastics packaging are compared in Table 2.

Table 2: Effects of replacing plastics in packaging by traditional materials
Energy usage: 1 litre bottles Weight of packaging 500 gm coffee Volume of Packaging per unit of product (averaged)
PET Glass Multi-layer pack Tin can With plastics
(e.g. foam)
Without plastics
(e.g. cardboard)
4 MJ 10 MJ 12 gm 130 gm 1 2.5

For all materials, looking at the 3Rs of sustainability – Redesign, Reuse, Recycle – the history of the last 30 years points overwhelmingly at Reuse as the best energy minimisation strategy. Table 3 gives the results for the 20 years to 2000.

Table 3: Packaging: Energy reduction strategies compared[1]
Reuse (3 trips instead of 1) Redesign over 10 years Energy recovery by burning Recycle by reprocessing
60% 30% 25% 8%


[1] As a percentage of original usage of energy the picture is much the same for metals, except there is no energy recovery possibility. The Reuse and Recycle strategies require energy for cleaning and/or sorting. This will reduce their advantage vis à vis Redesign or Burning.

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