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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Olive Oil’s Packaging Puzzle:
Glass or Plastic?

Long shipping routes, rising fuel and transportation costs, and concerns about the carbon footprint of food supply chains have driven many companies to reconsider their packaging options for greater efficiency.

Thanks to their rich farming history and cultural preference for this healthy ingredient, North African and South European regions are responsible for about 80 percent of the world's olive oil production. Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Portugal and Morocco are among the largest producers and distributors of this well-known oil that is appreciated globally and is central to the Mediterranean diet — which comprises over 20 diverse national and regional cuisines.

Despite its growth in the last decade, California’s growing olive oil production currently cannot meet the high internal demand from North American restaurants, retail stores and households. Almost all the olive oils consumed in the US are imported from overseas — by air or ocean freight.

Long shipping routes, rising fuel and transportation costs, and concerns about the carbon footprint of the food supply chain have driven many companies to reconsider their packaging options for greater efficiency.

Different materials have varying performance characteristics — including weight, fracture resistance, energy requirements for production and molding in the country of origin, and recyclability in the country of destination at the end of their lifecycle.

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Balancing the footprint of the packaging vs. the energy spent for its transport involves addressing various factors.

Globally, the most common packaging materials used for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) available in retail today include:

  1. Glass bottles: Glass is an excellent material for EVOO due to its impermeable and inert nature, which effectively preserves the oil's quality. It is commonly found in 250ml, 500ml and 1L formats, and has good recyclability potential. However, it is generally more expensive, subject to fracture, is substantially heavier than other options, and requires high energy inputs to produce and recycle.

  2. Plastic bottles: Certain high-quality, hard plastics — such as PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) — are widely used for packaging EVOO as an alternative to glass. These plastics are selected for their relatively good barrier properties, resistance to mechanical stress, flexibility, light weight and cost; PET also has good recyclability potential. It’s important to note that not all plastics are the same. Soft plastics and lower-quality materials have shown potential chemical interactions with their contents and air permeability.

  3. Tin cans: Tin or metal cans are popular for larger formats (3 to 5 liters). They provide excellent protection from light and air, ensuring the oil remains fresh for a longer period. Additionally, they are lightweight and durable.

  4. Bag-in-box systems: A plastic bag is placed within a cardboard box; and as oil is dispensed, the bag collapses to minimize contact with air. This packaging method is gaining popularity for oils and other liquid products because it preserves freshness and is practical for handling larger quantities.

  5. Ceramic bottles: Ceramic bottles are used less frequently but are valued for their excellent light-blocking properties and aesthetic appeal. They are often used for premium products.

Environmental impacts: Plastic vs. glass

PET and glass are the predominant materials utilized for packaging olive oil on retail shelves in the US today.

But which one is better? The answer varies based on numerous factors.

Plastic, typically derived from fossil fuels, has a significant carbon impact; whereas glass production is energy-intensive. However, plastic's lighter weight reduces carbon emissions during transportation — which is crucial for products such as olive oil, which is often shipped over long distances.

Regarding end-of-life considerations, glass is easily recyclable — but recycling can be energy-intensive. Consumer recycling rates for both plastic and glass olive oil containers are unclear. When the bottles aren’t recycled, the carbon footprint of olive oil shipped in plastic from over 250 miles would be lower than that in glass.

A 2014 study on the lifecycle assessment of beverage packaging — where 5 million bottles of 0.75-L GDB glass to 1-L Petcycle PET (100 percent recyclate) were transported an average of 500 km in Germany — made the following conclusions:

  • From an environmental point of view, reusable glass bottles are as good as PET bottles — as long as the transport distances are not longer than average.

  • Glass’ excellent suitability for reusability is offset by a relatively high weight with correspondingly lower transportability.

A 2022 McKinsey report on plastic indicates that the environmental performance of PET, aluminum and glass varies by region. PET bottles have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. While aluminum production uses a high share of hydropower in the US and Europe due to their reliance on coal from China, aluminum cans have lower GHG emissions in Western Europe due to cleaner energy sources and higher recycling rates. Glass bottles still have the highest emissions globally, primarily due to varying energy sources in production.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the recycling rate for glass containers in the US was about 31.1 percent in 2018; in Europe, the average rate in 2019 was approximately 78 percent. Some European countries achieve recycling rates above 90 percent.

The EPA says the recycling rate for PET bottles and jars in the US was 29.1 percent in 2018 — in Europe that year, it was around 58.2 percent.

Bellucci’s EVOO

ClimatePartner conducted a detailed analysis of the carbon footprint of the packaging material for Bellucci EVOO — a premium extra virgin olive oil produced by Certified Origins and bottled in glass in Italy.

The company calculated the Product Carbon Footprint of the most popular Italian Bellucci EVOO[^1] product lines, following the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Product Life Cycle Standard — which encompasses the total lifecycle emissions from olive cultivation, harvesting and oil extraction; bottling and packaging; upstream and downstream transportation; and end-of-life package disposal.

In this case, most of the carbon footprint was attributed to the raw materials (72 percent) — particularly, the agricultural processes. Operational emissions accounted for only 7 percent, while logistics and end-of-life disposal contributed 21 percent.

In other cases, in today’s globalized food supply chains, emissions from transportation and logistics can exceed operational and production emissions. Producers, retailers and distributors must collaborate and play a leading role in driving sustainable change by optimizing their operations, educating the public, adopting innovative practices and encouraging other stakeholders to follow suit.

4 recommendations

  1. Lightweighting: Reduce the weight of packaging materials to cut transportation emissions — i.e., lighter bottles require less fuel to transport.

  2. Increase recyclability: Use mono-materials to simplify the recycling process and reduce the need for virgin raw materials.

  3. Utilize recycled materials: Incorporate higher percentages of recycled content in packaging to reduce dependence on virgin resources and decrease the environmental impact of the packaging.

  4. Reusable systems: Develop reusable packaging systems to reduce the need for new packaging production, reducing resource consumption and waste generation.

[^1]: Bellucci ITA 500ml, Bellucci ITA 750ml, Bellucci ITA BIO 500ml, Bellucci ITA BIO 750 ml, Toscano IGP 500ml