How sustainable is your ice cream?

The carbon footprint of the world’s favourite frozen treat

(Photo Credits: Travel + Leisure)

During COVID, indulgence food sales have peaked, this includes the sale of ice cream. In the UK, an extra 54 million litres of ice cream were sold in 2020.There are many ice cream brands that have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon by offering plant-based options, sustainable packaging or by working closely to farmers on regenerative farming techniques.

But what is the actual environmental impact of ice cream?

Studies of the carbon footprint of ice cream have been done by multiple institutions and brands. In 2011, the Scottish government estimated that the Global Warming Potential [1] of ice cream is at 4 kg CO2 eq./kg. A 2019 University of Manchester Study about the environmental impact of ice cream (‘the ice cream study’) found that its carbon footprint ranges from of 3.66 CO2 eq./kg to 3.94 CO2 eq./kg, depending on flavour. Ben & Jerry’s also reported a similar figure of 3.36 CO2 eq./kg for a plain ice cream.

To understand where ice cream stands in terms of its environmental impact as a food, below is a table containing the carbon footprint figures for other popular foods:

Note: CO2 eq stands for carbon dioxide equivalent. This is a metric used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based on the global warming potential by converting the amounts of other gases to the equivalent amounts of CO2.

One might attribute the high carbon footprint of ice cream to the high energy consumption of the cooling facilities where it is stored, especially since this is the reason why frozen foods such as frozen vegetables and seafood, usually have higher carbon footprints.

At the same time, the ice cream study uncovered that although the storage stage is a major contributing factor to ice cream’s impact, the raw production stage of ice cream is the primary carbon emissions culprit.

Results of the ice cream study are in line with a remark by Carole Ferguson, Head of Investor Research at CDP, who said, “One of the important things with consumer goods companies is that 90 per cent of their emissions lie outside their own processes.”

Greenhouse gas emissions are broken down into three ‘scopes’ by the Greenhouse gas (GHG) protocol. Scope 1 emissions are directly created by the company, Scope 2 emissions cover indirect emissions, including purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the company. Scope 3 emission covers all other emissions created down the value chains. For ice cream, scope 3 emissions outweigh its scope 1 emissions by far.

[1] Global warming potential: GWP is developed as a metric to compare the relative ability of each type of GHG to absorb heat from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is selected as the reference gas. For example, GWP is 1 for Co2, and GWP is 28 for Methane.

Which parts of the ice cream production process have the highest carbon footprint?

(Photo Credit: Environmental Impacts of Ice Cream Study)

The ice cream study measures the environmental sustainability of ice cream by considering the full life cycle of four flavours identified as leading market types, namely premium and regular chocolate and premium and regular vanilla.

The study measured each stage of ice cream production against 18 impact factors[1], including Water Consumption, Agricultural land usage, Marine Ecotoxicity etc.

Results of the study show that most of the 18 impact factors have the highest rates at the raw material production stage. Raw material production contributes over 75% to marine eutrophication, natural land transformation, terrestrial ecotoxicity and terrestrial acidification.This stage is also a primary contributor to ice cream’s global warming potential, freshwater eutrophication, human toxicity, urban land occupation, and photochemical oxidant formation.

(Photo Credits: The New York Times)

Within ice cream raw production stages, dairy and cocoa production is found to have the highest environmental impact. This is because of the resource intensive nature of dairy farming, which requires significant use of agricultural land and water for cattle rearing. Cocoa production’s adverse impact is mainly due to the use of pesticides and fertilisers for farming, which contributes to mineral depletion and both freshwater and marine pollution.

What can be done?

Modifying animal feed by replacing 50% of dried grass by fresh grass, and composting manure, can reduce the environmental impacts of raw milk production. Doing so reduces GWP by 16%, eutrophication by 8% and acidification by 9%.

When it comes to cocoa production, replacing pesticides and fertilisers with more eco-friendly options can also significantly reduce its ecotoxicity.

What are some initiatives taken by ice cream brands?

(Photo Credit: Jude’s)

The UK’s first carbon negative ice cream brand Jude’s has implemented a carbon reduction plan, involving increased plant based options and working closely with farmers. The brand seeks to make 50% of its offerings plant-based by 2025. Further, the brand is also developing a more environmentally conscious supply chain. For instance, Jude’s milk supplier is part of a larger farming cluster working together to develop and scale landscape, habitat and biodiversity solutions.

According to Managing Director Chow Mezger, Jude’s sustainable initiatives has also benefitted its bottom line, “From the overwhelmingly positive response, it is clear shoppers are increasingly considering the environmental impact of the ice cream they buy.”

[1] The 18 impact factors include: (1) Primary Energy Demand (2) Global Warming Potential (3) Ozone Depletion (4) Fossil Fuel Depletion (5) Freshwater Eutrophication (6) Marine Eutrophication (7) Human Toxicity (8) Terrestrial Ecotoxicity (9) Freshwater Ecotoxicity (10) Marine Ecotoxicity (11) Terrestrial acidification (12) Agricultural Land Occupation (13) Urban Land Occupation (14) Natural Land Transformation (15) Photochemical oxidants formation (16) Mineral Depletion (17) Water Consumption (18) Water Footprint

The second major contributing factor is the energy used during the manufacturing and retail stages.

In manufacturing, processes such as hardening and deep freezing are very energy intensive. This stage also includes primary packaging; polypropylene is a common plastic material used in ice cream tubs. Although polypropylene is more environmentally friendly than other types of plastic, it is not biodegradable and still poses a threat to the environment. The manufacturing and packaging stage of ice cream contribute significantly, to primary energy demand and fossil fuel depletion. In the retail stage, freezing ice cream for storage is also significant contributor to ice cream’s carbon footprint.

(Photo Credits: Insider)

What can be done?

Reducing the energy intensive nature of both the manufacturing and retail stage involves switching to less energy intensive processes, optimising energy and using more low carbon energy sources. Unfortunately, the study also notes that the significant footprint during the raw material stage mean that energy savings during the manufacturing process must be substantial, i.e more than 25%, to make a difference to ice cream’s environmental impact.

What are some initiatives taken by ice cream brands?

Unilever, the parent company of global ice cream brands including Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s announced, last year their goal to start shipping from -18 to to shipping from -12 degrees. The company’s chief supply chain officer Mark Engel commented:

“The difference between -18C and -12C is very significant, but it’s easier in the developed than in the developing world. If you have an ice-cream cabinet out in the sun at 35 degrees, it’s more difficult to control [the temperature].”

Vegan ice cream brand Northern Bloc became the first brand in the UK last year to launch a fully biodegradable packaging for it 500ml tubs. The brand discarded of tub packaging lined with plastic coating and replaced this with a plant based material called BioPBS. After this transition, Northern Bloc saw sales grow 76%, to just shy of £500,000.

(Photo Credit: Northern Bloc)

Besides the energy intensive nature of ice cream storage facilities and units, the type of refrigerant used also affects the carbon footprint of ice cream. Refrigerants are working fluids used in air conditioners and fridges.

Certain types of refrigerants, such as CHCs and HCFC damage the ozone layer and contribute to ozone depletion.

What can be done?

Converting to using green refrigerants (those that have a lower ozone depletion potential) will reduce the environmental harm from ice cream storage. Many large retailers companies are shifting to using natural refrigerants, proving that these refrigerants can also be used at scale. For example, both Target and Wholefoods have deployed retail refrigeration cabinets run by R290 Propane in the majority of their U.S stores.

(Photo Credit:AireReserv.com)

In 2020, Unilever also announced it will convert to using green refrigerants and implement better insulation in ice cream freezers to lower its carbon footprint.

Demand for one of the world’s favourite frozen dessert does not seem to be slowing down, making it crucial for ice cream companies to implement and scale carbon reduction strategies. Since the majority of ice creams’ carbon footprint derive from the production of raw materials, offering more planet friendly flavours (flavours not containing resource intense ingredients such as dairy or chocolate) may be a key way to reduce carbon footprint. Reducing ice creams’ footprint also necessitates working with manufacturers and retailers to ensure less energy intensive processes and ‘green refrigerants’ are used.

Luckily, brands such as Jude’s and Northern Bloc are leading the way by showing that carbon negative and sustainably packaged ice cream can exist, and can taste equally delicious.

Note: This article is based on the University of Manchester’s research paper on the Environmental Impacts of Ice Cream (cited below).

Environmental impacts of ice cream. / Konstantas, Antonios; Stamford, Laurence; Azapagic, Adisa.: Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018.

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Telling stories about climate change and sustainable development through the lens of food (@claudia1ee)

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Claudia Lee

Claudia Lee

Telling stories about climate change and sustainable development through the lens of food (@claudia1ee)

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