Is it possible to calculate impact of more packaging versus farther transportation?

The two options are: 1. say: two half-litre glass bottles with local (made-in-this-country) oil; 2. say: 1 litre bottle with oil packed and shipped between Europe or North America and Australia.

Obviously, in one case there is the advantage of less packaging, in the other the advantage of shorter transport. Are these relative advantages comparable? Now I'm not sure it is answerable with just these data, but a negative answer will also be instructive.

  • In general locally sourced products have a smaller footprint due to lower transportation costs. However, for many products production costs are much bigger than transportation costs. This means that only looking at transportation distance can be misleading. For example, in this report researchers found that several products produced in New Zealand and consumed in the UK have a lower impact than locally sourced equivalents. In short, to make a fair comparison you have to look at the full lifecycle of the products you are comparing.
    – THelper
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 15:57
  • 2
    Another factor to consider is your ability to use the product before it goes bad after opening. Maybe not as relevant with oil as it would be with, say, canned tuna, it's still a factor to consider. Purchasing three 6 ounce cans of tuna can be better overall than one 18 ounce can if you end up discarding most of the big can due to spoilage. I call that the Costco Conundrum - do I really want to buy the 64 ounce ketchup bottle when it will take me 3 years to use that much?
    – Johnny
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 21:51

1 Answer 1


Packaging Considerations

In your example of using bottles to contain a liquid being transported.

All containers have a certain amount of required and excess material to enable them to hold a desired quantity of liquid. In the case of the bottles this material is in the thickness of the bottle, both the walls and the base. The large the container the thicker the walls and the base. Also, bottles have a funnel arrangement at their top (the opening) through which the bottle is filled and emptied.

Two half litre bottles will have two such funnels and will require extra material that a one litre bottle, which would the same capacity as two half litre bottles combined.

Transportation Issue

As an indication of the work/energy required to transport anything, a convenient unit of measure is weight multiplied by distance carried. For heavy haulage items this is tonne-kilometres, but it could also be kilogram-metres.

If 6 tonnes of stuff are being transported 10 km then the effort required is 60 t-km.

In your example, you would need to know the total weight of the filled bottles: bottles + oil + caps + labels and multiple that by the distance being transported for each situation and then compare the t-km for each scenario.

  • I see -- this seems like a rather precise algorithm. But also an impractical one. Btw, also it likely matters which transport is employed, and planes, trains, trucks and ships must be factored in. Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 6:56
  • I keep thinking how to apply this in everyday life :-) Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 23:40
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    This is one of those situations where there isn't a quick easy answer. Some science & mathematics is needed to help form a conclusion. Depending on how deeply you want to consider things, you could also consider where the packing for each product is made & how it affects the region where it was made regarding energy usage for manufacture & transportation and also how the waste from manufacture is dealt with. Generally, these sort of analyses are done by research bodies. You need to know a lot to make a truly informed decision.
    – Fred
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 1:31

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