An environmental impact comparison of single-use and reusable thermally controlled shipping containers

Kai N. Goellner, Eph Sparrow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Purpose: Pharmaceutical and biological materials require thermally controlled environments when being transported between manufacturers, clinics, and hospitals. It is the purpose of this report to compare the life cycle impacts of two distinct logistical approaches to packaging commonly used in cold chain logistics and to identify the method of least environmental burden the approaches of interest are single-use packaging utilizing containers insulated with either polyurethane or polystyrene and reusable packaging utilizing containers with vacuum-insulated panels. Methods: This study has taken a cradle-to-grave perspective, which covers material extraction, manufacture, assembly, usage, transportation, and end-of-life realities the functional unit of comparison is a 2-year clinical trial consisting of 30,000 individual package shipments able to maintain roughly 12 L of payload at a controlled 2-8 °C temperature range for approximately 96 h. Published life-cycle inventory data were used for process and material emissions. A population-centered averaging method was used to estimate transportation distances to and from clinical sites during container use. Environmental impacts of the study include global warming potential, eutrophication potential, acidification potential, photochemical oxidation potential, human toxicity potential, and postconsumer waste. Results and discussion: The average single-use approach emits 1,122 tonnes of CO 2e compared with 241 tonnes with the reusable approach over the functional unit. This is roughly a 75 % difference in global warming potential between the two approaches. Similar differences exist in other impact categories with the reusable approach showing 60 % less acidification potential, 65 % less eutrophication potential, 85 % less photochemical ozone potential, 85 % less human toxicity potential, and 95 % less postconsumer waste the cradle-to-gate emissions of the single-use container were the overwhelming cause of its high environmental burden as 30,000 units were required to satisfy the functional unit rather than 772 for the reusable approach the reusable container was about half the mass of the average single-use container, which lowered its transportation emissions below the single-use approach despite an extra leg of travel. Conclusions: The reusable logistical approach has shown to impose a significantly smaller environmental burden in all impact categories of interest. A sensitivity analysis has shown some leeway in the degree of the environmental advantage of the reusable approach, but it confirms the conclusion as no case proved otherwise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)611-619
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments The authors would like to thank Minnesota Thermal Science for their financial support. Generous thanks are due to all the suppliers involved it the study, this research would not have been possible without their commitment and openness to data collection. We would also like to acknowledge those at NREL and PlasticsEurope for their help with LCI data and their commitment to providing a public data bank emission research.


  • Clinical trial
  • Cold chain
  • Life-cycle analysis
  • Logistics
  • Packaging
  • Phase change media
  • Vacuum-insulated panel


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