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Environmental impacts of plastic packaging of food products

CSS Publication Number
Full Publication Date
May 1, 2022

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is used widely to compare the relative impacts of different packaging materials for a specific food product, but few studies evaluate how a single packaging material contributes to a variety of food items. Plastic is a common material used for food packaging. This study conducts an analysis of 28 studies that conduct an LCA of food products to quantify the impact of plastic packaging relative to the total life cycle impact of food products. For most of the 13 environmental indicators reported, plastic packaging is responsible for less than 10% of total life cycle emissions of 23 out of the 30 foods studied. Relative packaging emissions tend to be higher for liquids and food products packaged in small quantities, although the absolute values of energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are small. To make LCA results more accessible to non-scientific audiences, this study compares the results to a reference value of the emissions of vehicle travel. The environmental impact caused by the packaging from per capita annual food consumption is less than the environmental impact of per capita daily vehicle travel for most food products analyzed, although annual beverage consumption can be responsible for the equivalent impact of 76 miles of driving.

Research Areas
Food Systems and Consumer Products
Consumer Products & Packaging

Life cycle assessment

Food packaging environmental impact

Plastic food packaging


Break-even analysis

Food system

Publication Type
Journal Article
Digital Object Identifier
Full Citation

Kan, Mengqing and Shelie Miller (2022). Environmental impacts of plastic packaging of food products. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 180: 106156. CSS22-26