Why assessing environmental impact only through carbon is misleading

With that complete focus on CO2; we might face a new problem: carbon tunnel vision. Let’s see what it means, with the example of packaging systems.

We’ve lost the other dimensions of sustainability under the flood of news about the importance of going “carbon neutral” and “reducing our carbon footprints.” With that complete focus on CO2; we might face a new problem: carbon tunnel vision. Don’t get us wrong, we need accessible entry points to get into sustainable thinking. In that sense, the carbon approach is necessary. Sustainability should not be so complex that it is off-putting. BUT.

Recycling, carbon offsets, tree-planting, those are just snowflakes that will only matter if they roll bigger to become a giant fat snowman. (ok, weird metaphor, but you follow us). In other words, having a CO2 obsession when approaching sustainability is like focusing only on GDP to assess happiness.

If we achieve net-zero emissions yet overlook resource scarcity, or fail to protect biodiversity, what will this mean for the wellbeing of people and the planet? A bit limited, right? We need a good balance between “Every baby step is positive and should be encouraged,” and we have to be careful with sustainability shaming.

On the other hand, we should avoid becoming vain because of our “CO2 focus only” while neglecting the different dimensions, or worse, thinking that they matter less when evaluating impact.

Carbon tunnel vision in packaging

In reusable models, the packaging, produced once, will travel between our hubs, brands, consumers and back to hubs again. To operate a reusable system is not carbon neutral. Traveling means vehicles, energy consumption, carbon emissions, right? Reusable packaging is not carbon neutral, but its system makes it much, much better for the environment than linear, single-use packaging systems. 

Let’s compare RePack to single-use plastic mailers, carbon-wise only.

If you compare reusable RePack and single-use plastic mailers in terms of CO2, single-use might score better!! Does it mean it’s better for the environment? Heck no. No one will recycle this. This plastic mailer will probably burn or end up in water streams after being transported by boat all across the globe. It might use less carbon in manufacturing but the environmental impact does not stop there. This plastic, in addition to exposing soil and water to ecotoxicity risks, will affect ocean acidification, biodiversity and push dangerously the “novel entity” planet boundary.  By looking at it holistically, that’s why reusable packaging is much, much better for the planet!

What about cardboard?

In terms of carbon, cardboard is not performing very well as it’s heavier than single-use plastic or a RePack, and it usually leads to a lot of space; therefore, more trucks are used to deliver orders. In a sense, carbon-wise, it’s better to choose single-use plastic, but it is agreed that cardboard is less harmful to the environment. It’s recyclable, we have the technology to recycle it and it’s less damaging to soil, uses renewable resources, etc. 

But- it’s still a single-use product with huge drawbacks.

Growing trees on an industrial scale to produce single-use cardboard or kraft packaging is a very inefficient use of resources. It leads to deforestation and/or resource scarcity, preventing the cultivation of necessary crops because we are essentially using land to “grow cardboard” and requires large amounts of water. The entire process has a destructive impact on biodiversity.

To conclude, let’s give the stage to two brilliant scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre:

“The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals and other novel entities into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity.”
Patricia Villarubia-Gómez

“Shifting to a circular economy is really important. That means changing materials and products so they can be reused not wasted, designing chemicals and products for recycling, and much better screening of chemicals for their safety and sustainability along their whole impact pathway in the Earth system” Sarah Cornell 

Reusable packaging systems allow us to reduce waste drastically, has a minimal impact on the environment and a brilliant difference from single-use is that the system can be improved, more and more, in order to reduce our existing impact.


For more information, please visit https://www.repack.com/

Written by Dominy Jones