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A comparative life cycle analysis compared the environmental impact of cardboard refrigerated boxes with that of refrigerated boxes made of expanded polystyrene (EPS). Contrary to public expectations, cardboard refrigerated boxes were found to be no more environmentally friendly than their EPS counterparts. The study shows that the carbon footprint of both types of boxes is likely to be equivalent, while EPS boxes score better on the overall environmental footprint and important specific environmental impacts, such as emissions to water.

Carton versus EPS
The study compared the 'Papercooler', a fully cardboard cooler box, and the 'EcoCooler', a larger variant with cardboard walls filled with cellulose insulation material, with their respective EPS equivalents of the same size.


The Environmental Footprint
According to the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), a measure that quantifies the environmental impact of products throughout their life cycle, the impact of the cardboard Papercooler and Ecocooler measured in the study is as much as 2.91 and 1.55 times greater than that of EPS refrigerated boxes, respectively. This difference becomes even clearer when looking at specific environmental impacts.


Specific environmental effects
The impact on freshwater organisms of toxic substances released into the environment is 201 times greater for the cardboard Papercooler and 96 times greater for the cardboard Ecocooler than for EPS. And also the environmental impact due to potential global warming from land use change is 75 and 38 times greater for the paper Papercooler and Ecocooler, respectively, than for the comparable EPS cooler.


General perception debunked
These results debunk the general perception that cardboard is a more environmentally friendly packaging material. The results are also in line with the increasing number of studies and reports showing that replacing plastic packaging with paper is not an obvious sustainable solution. In addition, the findings of the life cycle analysis show that when choosing packaging materials, attention needs to be paid to total environmental impact throughout their production process.

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