The Environmental Impact of Food: Fruit Juice

Shopper reaching for a green drink in the juice aisle

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Global orange juice consumption exceeded 1.5 million metric tons from October 2019 to September 2020—and that was a relatively slow year compared to a decade prior, when more than 2 million metric tons were drunk. Alas, guzzling that amount of juice, regardless of the flavor, comes with repercussions. For starters, The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo—the world's two worst plastic polluters—own the leading juice brands in the U.S.: Tropicana, Minute Maid, Simply Orange, and V8. And problematic parent companies are but a scratch on the surface of juice's carbon footprint. 

To grasp the total environmental impact of juice, one must consider the resources needed to grow the produce, the food waste associated with juice extraction, the materials used to package it, and the energy required to ship and store it.

Learn more about the fruit juice industry's impact and whether it's worth the sugary hit of pre-squeezed, liquified food.

Calculating Fruit Juice's Carbon Footprint

Conveyer belt with containers of fresh juice on it

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Orange juice, which makes up 90% of the U.S.'s citrus juice market, has a carbon footprint of about 200 grams per glass. A 2009 collaboration between PepsiCo and Columbia University's Earth Institute aimed to figure the carbon footprint of Tropicana found that a half-gallon represented 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide—or about the same amount as emitted by a 5-mile car ride. A subsequent study on Florida orange juice published by the University of Florida estimated the carbon footprint of a half-gallon as almost four times lower but didn't account for distribution, packaging, and disposal.

Tropicana's home state of Florida, whose citrus industry is the second largest in the world, produces 547 million gallons of not-from-concentrate orange juice and about 537 gallons of frozen-concentrated orange juice per year. The growing process alone accounts for 60% of orange juice's carbon footprint. The use of gasoline (for machinery), nitrogen fertilizers, and water—the average tree requiring about 30 gallons per day—make up most of that chunk.

In the 2019 book "Climate-Smart Food," author Dave Reay said climate change will likely increase the risk of pests and disease and create more drought and heat-related issues for fruit crops, which will likely lead to even greater water, fertilizer, and pesticide usage.

Apples—while they do require more water than citrus fruits, with a single tree needing 50 gallons on a hot day—are believed to have a smaller climatic impact than apricots, peaches, grapes, oranges, bananas, pineapples, kiwis, and pears.

Transportation and Distribution

Of course, the carbon footprint of juice varies depending on where the fruit is grown. Crops in drier climates require more water, farther-away farms lead to higher transportation emissions, and so forth. According to Tropicana's press release about the 2009 study, transportation and distribution accounted for 22% of its orange juice's carbon footprint (the full study was not made public).

Despite the official tourism bureau of Florida's claim that 90% of America's orange juice is made from Florida oranges, the country does source much of its fruit from Brazil. The South American country is the world's largest producer of oranges, supplying more than half of all bottled orange juice.

Apart from the fruit it imports to squeeze domestically, the U.S. also sources much of its orange juice concentrate from Mexico and Costa Rica, and its pineapple juice concentrate from Thailand, the Philippines, Costa Rica, and Indonesia. While not-from-concentrate juice has long been deemed a healthier drink than from-concentrate juice, the latter weighs less (and therefore generates fewer emissions) because the excess water is removed.

Packaging

Tops of fruit juice cartons lined up

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Fruit juice typically comes in polyethylene terephthalate (#1 PET plastic) bottles and jugs or in cartons made from plastic-coated paper. While #1 plastics are widely accepted by curbside recycling services, those plastic-paper hybrid cartons often used for shelf-stable products are only recycled by special schemes. According to Tropicana, packaging accounted for 15% of the beverage's carbon footprint, and consumer use and disposal accounted for 3%.

Recently, the packaging company Tetra Pak has emerged as a perhaps more responsible maker of beverage cartons. However, Tetra Pak containers notoriously difficult to recycle because so few facilities process them. The good news is that Tetra Pak has teamed up with other carton manufacturers to form a Carton Council, which aims to improve access to carton recycling throughout the U.S. Since 2009, the year the council formed, the curbside recycling rate of cartons has tripled from 6% to 18%.

Food Waste

Not to be overlooked is the food waste generated by discarded pulp and peels. With more than half the raw materials used for making OJ becoming a byproduct, the global orange juice industry alone produces up to 20 million tons of solid and liquid waste annually. When food waste winds up in landfills, it breaks down and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas thought to have more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. Citrus fruits generate the most waste because of their hearty peels and pulp.

How to Become a Greener Juice Drinker

Just because bottled juice has a carbon footprint akin to driving a fossil-fueled car doesn't mean you must swear off the beloved beverage altogether. There are many ways to be a better juice consumer. 

  • Look for juice from concentrate, which weighs less and generates fewer transportation emissions. From-concentrate juices get a bad rap because they can feature added sugars and chemical preservatives, but you can certainly find varieties that don't.
  • Buy glass containers instead of plastic. Glass can be recycled repeatedly without losing its integrity whereas plastic usually only gets downcycled. Tetra Paks are also a good option, but make sure you have access to carton recycling beforehand.
  • Consider swapping orange juice for apple juice, as orange production has a higher carbon footprint than apple production and creates more waste, too.
  • Buy locally made juices to cut down on emissions from shipping.
  • Whenever you can, make your own juice from local and organic produce.
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