Environmental research details the consequences of virgin olive oils packaging

The work is the first to report on the contribution of the 3 main types of primary packaging (glass, tin and PET) within the whole virgin olive oils life cycle.

The study also shows the environmental consequences of the Spanish regulation for public establishments, found to mean a 74% increase in greenhouse gases emissions.

LCA and ecodesign are presented as important tools to be promoted and applied in policy making to reduce non-desirable consequences of regulation.

Non-refillable olive oil bottle. Copyright: iStock.

Non-refillable olive oil bottle. Copyright: iStock.

A study headed by researchers at the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF and the Igualada School of Engineering (EEI) at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), shows that the contribution of Virgin Olive Oils (VOOs) usual packaging to the whole life cycle of the product varies from 2 to 196% of the environmental impact of the product, depending on the impact category considered and type of packaging: glass, tin or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). “Glass, which is related to higher quality perception by consumers, has been found to be the most influencing material due to its weight; however, this impact may be fairly reduced by applying ecodesign strategies, such as weight reduction and recycled-glass percentage increase,” explains Rita Puig, Research Professor at UPC and head of the study. The potential of life cycle perspective for environmental management and for the stage prior to regulations approval is also presented in this work.

The journal Environmental management has published this study on the importance of packaging in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of VOOs, and the environmental consequences of regulation by Alejandra Navarro, predoctoral candidate training simultaneously in two research groups— the EEI and the Chair. Collaborative research between the group headed by Rita Puig and that led by the director at the Chair, Pere Fullana i Palmer, has provided a comprehensive picture of the environmental impacts of alternative packaging in a global VOOs supply chain. The study also “includes, for the first time in literature, a third type of packaging (tin or steel can) and considers a sensitivity analysis of bottle weight influence and lower distances for transport and distribution, inside Spain instead of all over the world,” stresses Puig.


Olive oil production and consumption

“Production and consumption of olive oil are very important in Europe, being this product a basic element in the Mediterranean diet since long ago. In this study, we aim to quantify the influence of different types of packaging on the life cycle of this product,” highlights Puig. Thus, using the CML methodology for the impact assessment, researchers have performed a LCA according to ISO 14044 to evaluate VOOs packaging sustainability from the environmental perspective. “The type of packaging used affects three life cycle stages: bottling, where the production of the bottle is considered; distribution, influenced by the weight and robustness of the bottles; and end-of-life, where the recycling rate is important,” adds Puig.

“The most contributing stage for the 3 types of packaging under study is olive production, followed by the packaging stage. Within the olive production stage, the production of the diesel used for agricultural works is found to be the most contributing aspect in most of the impact categories, such as Primary Energy or Acidification Potential, among others. Within the packaging stage, the production of the packaging material and its proportional to the packaging weight is the most contributing aspect. Finally, the most contributing aspect of the oil-making stage is usually electricity production,” explains Alejandra Navarro, first author of the study.

With respect to the 3 main types of primary packaging, “glass bottles are found to be the option producing the highest impacts, shortly followed by tin,” highlights Navarro. “In order to reduce the environmental impact of using glass bottles for VOOs, our work suggest a reduction of the bottle weight, together with the use of a higher percentage of recycled glass,” she adds. These results do not take into account the difference in service quality given by the different packaging solutions which could (partially) compensate the difference in co2 emissions.


Environmental consequences of the regulation in Spain

“The Spanish regulation for public establishments related to the mandatory use of non-refillable oilers (Real Decreto 895/2013), has caused a 74% increase of environmental impact (measured as CO2 equivalent emissions), due to the higher amount of packaging required and to the quantity of VOOs discarded with the packaging at the end of its life,” explains Fullana i Palmer. This regulation, aimed at providing more quality assurance and better information to consumers, “was deeply discussed at European level and its application was withdrawn due to consumers rejection. Despite this, Spain has implemented it” he adds.

Researchers at the Chair and the EEI have evaluated for the first time the environmental consequences of this regulation. The results of this work show an increase of the Global Warming Potential impact to be taken into account for ecodesign improvements of the packaging. “The reason for carrying out this research is to show Spanish policymakers and Olive Oil Stakeholders, among other relevant actors in the packaging industry, how LCA can be used to measure the environmental consequences of their decisions,” stresses the director at the Chair. “Nevertheless, these results are a first estimation and further research would be needed to have more accurate results to be used at political decision-making level,” he adds.

Reference article
Navarro, A., Puig, R., Martí, E., Bala, A., & Fullana-i-Palmer, P. (2018). Tackling the Relevance of Packaging in Life Cycle Assessment of Virgin Olive Oil and the Environmental Consequences of Regulation. Environmental management, 1-18.

DOI: 10.1007%2Fs00267-018-1021-x



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