What Is the Carbon Footprint of Cabbage? A Life-Cycle Analysis

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Cabbage? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Grace Howarth

Read Time:14 Minutes

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Cabbage was once considered a luxury vegetable. It was served as an Ancient Roman preventative measure for hangovers and as a sailor’s method for fending off scurvy. With over 400 varieties, this brassica is popular in dishes all over the world: from fermented Korean kimchi and stuffed Polish golabki to English bubble and squeak. However, much less is shared about the environmental impact, and especially the carbon emissions of cabbage. So, we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of cabbage?

Cabbage has a very low carbon footprint of 0.07 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. The main factors that contribute to these emissions are cabbage’s agricultural practices and packaging; the transporting footprint can be kept low by purchasing local produce.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the overall carbon emissions of the life-cycle of cabbage. From growing and packaging to transportation and end-of-life practices, you will learn how this vegetable affects the planet and discover some ways to reduce and offset the footprint. 

Here’s How We Assessed the Carbon Footprint of Cabbage

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with consumption, but also includes other emissions such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, and is generally expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Basically, it is the amount of carbon emitted by you as an individual or an organization providing you with goods and services – including cabbage:

To understand the carbon footprint of cabbage, we must assess its life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials.

Here’s the Overall Carbon Footprint of Cabbage

The overall carbon footprint of cabbage is 0.07 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is very low in comparison to other foods. It has a similar carbon footprint to root vegetables, such as onions and potatoes, making it one of the least carbon-intensive vegetables. The main factors that cause these emissions are agriculture, transport, and packaging, with processing and end-of-life waste having a smaller impact. 

Cabbage is a sustainable crop to grow and produce. It is a great choice of food if you are trying to reduce your carbon emissions.

The carbon footprint of cabbage0.07 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of cabbage

So, let’s have a look at each stage of the LCA of cabbage!

The life-cycle stages of cabbageEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of cabbageThe carbon footprint of growing cabbage is 0.07 kg (0.15 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up a large 77.57% of the overall carbon footprint of cabbage. Cabbage is land-efficient, uses little water in comparison to other foods, and is treated with few pesticides. These factors all contribute to the low carbon footprint. 
Harvesting, processing, and packaging of cabbageThe carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging cabbage is <0.07 kg (<0.15 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is 11% of the overall carbon footprint. Processed cabbages sold in plastic packaging have a higher carbon footprint than loose whole cabbages, due to the extra resources used. 
Transporting of cabbageThe carbon footprint of transporting cabbage is <0.05 kg (<0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which amounts to 11.43% of the overall carbon footprint. Cabbage grows in many states, making it easy to buy locally-produced cabbage, which has a lower carbon footprint than imported crops. 
End-of-life of cabbageThe carbon footprint of the end-of-life of cabbage is largely impacted by the amount of food and packaging wasted. Cabbage makes up 1.5% of all avoidable food waste, with 56,000 tons wasted a year. They are the 18th most wasted ingredient. Cabbages are often sold loose, but when packaged in plastic, they have a negative impact on the carbon footprint. 

These four stages can be broken down in more detail to understand the factors which impact the carbon footprint of cabbage.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing Cabbage

The carbon footprint of growing cabbage is 0.07 kg (0.15 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up a large 77.57% of the overall carbon footprint of cabbage. Cabbage is land-efficient, uses little water in comparison to other foods, and is treated with few pesticides. These factors all contribute to the low carbon footprint. 

The growing stage of most vegetables is carbon intensive, due to the land, pesticides, and water used to bring crops to maturity. However, in comparison to many other vegetables, cabbage uses relatively few of each one of these resources, making it a low-carbon food. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing cabbage?

  • How do cabbage grow: Cabbage is part of the brassica family and grows above ground. They can be grown outside in fields, in greenhouses, hydroponically, or even aeroponically. However, due to the heavy weight of cabbages, they are not often grown vertically. Cabbage grown outside also reduces the need for artificial light and heating systems, which produce carbon emissions.
  • What is the growth duration of cabbage: Cabbage matures in about 20 weeks. This is a far longer growth duration than that of some salad leaves, which can be harvested in about 3-6 weeks. However, vegetables such as asparagus take a year to grow. Quick harvest times are beneficial to the environment because the land can be efficiently used to yield more produce. 
  • What is the land usage of cabbage: A good yield of cabbage would be between 30-70 tons per hectare of land usage. This makes it a land-efficient plant, like broccoli, thus not impacting the carbon footprint greatly.
  • What is the water usage of cabbage: In order to produce a kilo of cabbage, 237 liters of water are needed. In comparison, beef requires 15,000 liters to produce just one kilo. The water footprint of cabbage is relatively low, so it does not have a large impact on the carbon footprint.
  • What is the pesticide and fertilizer usage of cabbage: Cabbage ranked as the 10th “cleanest” crop, by the Environmental Working Group, meaning that the pesticide usage of this vegetable is very low in comparison to other crops. Pesticides produce carbon emissions through manufacturing, transportation, and application to crops. So, the fact that cabbage uses relatively low levels of pesticides is better for the carbon footprint. 

In short, the growing process of cabbage releases comparatively low amounts of carbon emissions to many other vegetables. However, due to the resources used, it is the stage that is most carbon-intensive in the life-cycle of cabbage. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Harvesting, Processing, and Packaging Cabbage

The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging cabbage is <0.07 kg (<0.15 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is 11% of the overall carbon footprint. Processed cabbages sold in plastic packaging have a higher carbon footprint than loose whole cabbages, due to the extra resources used. 

Hand harvesting is prevalent in the cabbage industry, due to easily damaged food. However, this produces fewer carbon emissions than crops harvested by machine, meaning that cabbage has a low carbon footprint. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging cabbage?

  • How are cabbage harvested: Most cabbages are harvested by hand. Some cabbages are harvested by machine, but this usually damages the crop, so is not used for fresh market cabbage. Hand-harvesting is labor-intensive but means that carbon-intensive machine harvesters are not used, making the overall carbon footprint low. 
  • How are cabbage processed: Cabbage is usually produced for the fresh market, meaning that the plant is sold unprocessed. So, few carbon emissions are released by processing. However, sometimes the vegetable is sold pre-chopped for consumer ease, which increases the carbon footprint of the crop.
  • How are cabbage packaged: Cabbage is usually transported in mesh bags, fiberboard cartons, or wire crates. It is often sold loose, however, it is sometimes sold wrapped in plastic film. Opt for plastic-free cabbages, which have a lower carbon footprint than their pre-packaged counterparts. 

In short, unprocessed cabbages sold loose have a lower carbon footprint than pre-cut varieties packaged in plastic. Due to the hand-harvesting of this crop, the carbon footprint of this stage in the life-cycle of cabbage is relatively low. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting of Cabbage

The carbon footprint of transporting cabbage is <0.05 kg (<0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which amounts to 11.43% of the overall carbon footprint. Cabbage grows in many states, making it easy to buy locally-produced cabbage, which has a lower carbon footprint than imported crops.

If cabbage is imported, the transportation time will be long and incredibly carbon-intensive. Reducing the need for methods of transport that are bad for the environment, like airfreights, drastically decreases the carbon footprint of this vegetable. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting cabbage?

In short, because cabbage can be grown all across the US, it is easier to find locally grown produce, which keeps the overall carbon footprint of this vegetable low. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of the End-of-Life of Cabbage

The carbon footprint of the end-of-life of cabbage is largely impacted by the amount of food and packaging wasted. Cabbage makes up 1.5% of all avoidable food waste, with 56,000 tons wasted a year. They are the 18th most wasted ingredient. Cabbages are often sold loose, but when packaged in plastic, they have a negative impact on the carbon footprint. 

Cabbage has a shelf life of about two weeks, but only 2-3 days when cut, which could lead to waste. It is a compostable product, capable of creating sustainable fertilizer. However, it sadly often ends up rotting in a landfill. The packaging used can potentially be recycled, but can also end up in a landfill.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of the end-of-life of cabbage?

In short, the relatively short shelf life of cabbage after being cut could lead to food waste. If waste is created, choose to compost or recycle it. However, purchasing loose cabbage is the simplest way to reduce carbon emissions due to plastic packaging.

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Cabbage Compare to Other Types of Food

Cabbage has a low carbon footprint compared with other foods. In comparison to other popular vegetables, it ranks alongside root vegetables like onions and potatoes. So, if you are looking for a low-carbon snack that is also super healthy, cabbage is a good choice.

Let’s see how cabbage ranks in comparison to other types of vegetables. 

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Cabbage Compare to Other Types of Vegetables

In comparison to other vegetables, the carbon footprint of cabbage is very low. For example, cucumbers produce nearly fourteen times the carbon emissions of cabbage. Cabbage ranks as a vegetable with one of the lowest carbon footprints!

VegetablesCarbon Footprint
Cucumbers1.00 kg (2.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of cucumbers
Tomatoes0.82 kg (1.8 lbs) CO2e per pound of tomatoes
Bell Peppers0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of bell peppers
Chili Peppers0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of chili peppers
Asparagus0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of asparagus
Salad Mix0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of salad mix
Spinach0.30 kg (0.67 lbs) of CO2e per pound of spinach
Cauliflower0.27 kg (0.6 lb) CO2e per pound of cauliflower
Broccoli0.27 kg (0.6 lb) CO2e per pound of broccoli
Celery0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound of celery
Kale0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound of kale
Corn0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound of corn
Lettuce 0.26 kg (0.57 lb) of CO2e per pound of lettuce
Carrots0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of carrots
Garlic0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of garlic
Green Onions0.16 kg (0.32 lb) of CO2e per pound of green onions
Potatoes0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of potatoes
Mushrooms0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of mushrooms
Onions 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of onions
Sweet potatoes0.10 kg (0.22 lb) of CO2e per pound of sweet potatoes
Cabbage0.07 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of cabbage
Eggplants0.07 kg (0.16 lb) of CO2e per pound of eggplants

So, cabbage has a very low carbon footprint in comparison with other vegetables. But how does it compare to other types of food?

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Cabbage Compare to Other Types of Food in General

As a brassica, cabbage is one of the more sustainable options in comparison to other types of food. Brassicas, on average, produce around twelve times less greenhouse gas emissions than beef when compared calorically. 

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), foods are often compared in terms of emissions per 1,000 kilocalories (as opposed to their weight in lbs or kg).

Illustration of greenhouse gas emissions per 1000 kilocalories
Our World in Data: Greenhouse Gas Emissions per 1,000 kilocalories

However, since cabbage is extremely low in calories, a far greater amount of produce is needed to equal 1,000 kilocalories.

  • To eat 1,000 kilocalories, you would need to consume 43 servings, or around 153 ounces.
  • In comparison to beef, you would only need 4.6 servings to eat 1,000 kilocalories, or 16 ounces.
  • Comparatively, cabbage has a high carbon footprint per kilocalorie, but is enormously less calorific than animal-based food.
  • More calorific plant-based foods, such as pulses and nuts, have a minuscule carbon footprint in comparison to animal-based proteins. A single portion of beef amounts to around 9.5 portions of cabbage, in terms of calories.
  • This means that per portion, you will be consuming fewer calories, and so the carbon footprint will not be as large as this graph suggests.

Even though the carbon emissions for cabbage are low in comparison to other types of food, try to be mindful of the ways you can lessen your environmental impact when you purchase it.

How Can You Reduce and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

All of the food you eat will have some form of carbon footprint, even when you buy foods with low CO2e, such as cabbage. However, there are ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

There are a few easy techniques to buy more eco-friendly cabbage, and you can also find ways to offset the carbon footprint after your purchase.

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Cabbage

When shopping for cabbage, consider these ways to lessen your impact on the environment. 

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Cabbage is a cool season crop, and is in peak season from late fall to early spring. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced and makes it a much more sustainable choice.
  2. Choose organic: Organic cabbage produces a much lower carbon footprint than non-organic vegetables, due to the lack of pesticide production, distribution, and the overall higher health of soil for crops, insects, and animals.
  3. Avoid waste: Cabbage has a relatively short shelf life when cut, meaning it may end up going bad in the refrigerator. Avoid this by storing your cabbage correctly and consuming it quickly.

Taking these actions is a great way to lessen your own carbon footprint, but there are also ways to offset the impact of consuming cabbage as well.

How Can You Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere – for example for the carbon emissions that are associated with cabbage. They are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market. 

Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees

Oxford Dictionary

In terms of cabbage – and indeed all food types – there will always be a carbon footprint, because of the resources it takes to get your food from farms to the place where you’ll eventually eat them. And while there are ways to reduce your carbon footprint when shopping for cabbage, carbon offsets would be a way to reduce your CO2e emissions all the way down to net zero (or even to become climate positive).

However, when you purchase carbon offsets, it’s important that they actually make a difference in offsetting (aka reducing) total carbon emissions. To achieve that, the following are key criteria:

  • Carbon offset projects have to be effective (different projects have different effectiveness rates)
  • Carbon offset projects have to be additional
  • Carbon offset projects have to be permanent
  • The claims from carbon offset projects have to be verifiable

To find the best carbon offsets for you personally, check out our full guide on the best carbon offsets for individuals, where you’ll also learn more about how these carbon offset projects work, what their respective offsetting costs are, and what your best way would be to offset your own carbon emissions.

Related: Check out our full guide on “What Are the Best Carbon Offsets for Individuals: Complete 2024 List” to find the best carbon offset providers for your personal carbon emissions and those associated with, e.g., eating cabbage.

Final Thoughts

Cabbage has a very low carbon footprint when compared with other vegetables, and an even lower carbon footprint when compared with other foods in general. However, you can try to reduce your carbon footprint even further by eating organic, reducing food and plastic waste, and purchasing local, seasonal produce. When you do enjoy cabbage, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created in order to make this healthy vegetable an even more sustainable option!

Stay impactful,

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