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

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

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Teresa Mersereau

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With over 200 varieties cultivated in the US, the plum is one of the most popular and diverse native North American fruits. They are also an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, with relatively few calories per unit! But have you ever thought of the potential environmental impact of plums? If you are a regular plum consumer, then you should think about their potential carbon emissions. So, we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of plums?

Plums have a carbon footprint of 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums. This is mainly because of their high rates of land use, irrigation, pesticides, harvesting methods, packaging, and transportation times. They are among the highest carbon-emitting fruits on the carbon footprint scale. 

In this article, we will look at the full life cycle of the plum, investigating how each stage contributes to its carbon footprint. We will go through each of the main stages of the plum’s production, starting with growth and going through harvesting, distribution, and ending at waste disposal. Through each of these sections, we will evaluate how it contributes to the plum’s carbon footprint to determine the overall impact of the plum. So, let’s get into the carbon footprint of the plum!

Here’s How We Assessed the Carbon Footprint of Plums

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 plums:

To understand the carbon footprint of plums, 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 Plums

The overall carbon footprint of plums is 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums. There are many factors that contribute to this large carbon footprint, including the amount of irrigation, land, and pesticides used, as well as the mechanized harvesting practices and the improper disposal of waste. In general, plums have a high carbon footprint, especially in comparison to other fruits. 

Plums are a delicious treat, but there are quite a few aspects of their production process that can drive up their carbon footprint. From the methods used in their harvesting to how far they need to travel to your door to the way that most people tend to dispose of them. So, let’s examine how all these factors combine to form the overall carbon footprint of the plum. 

The carbon footprint of plums0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums

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

The life-cycle stages of plumsEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of plumsThe growth of plums has a fairly high carbon footprint. This is largely due to their lower-density orchards, irrigation requirements, and high pesticide use.
Harvesting, processing, and packaging of plumsThe carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging plums is significant. This is mainly due to the fact that most of the process is mechanized and the packaging uses cardboard. 
Transporting of plumsThe transportation carbon footprint of plums is fairly high. The main factors that contribute to this are the average distances traveled and the need to refrigerate the fruit during transportation. Most of the plums consumed in the US are grown in California, however, a significant number are also imported from Chile. 
End-of-life of plumsThe end-of-life disposal of plum waste contributes significantly to its carbon footprint. The main reason for this is the lack of consistent composting amongst the average plum consumer. 

Those are the bigger summaries of each stage of the plum’s impact, illustrating for you how they contribute to the carbon footprint. But each of those categories has a more complex story to tell. In the ensuing sections, we will dive deeper into the more specific qualities of these aspects of the plum production process. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing Plums

The growth of plums has a fairly high carbon footprint. This is largely due to their lower-density orchards, irrigation requirements, and high pesticide use. 

Plums are actually native to America and Canada, meaning they have been growing on this continent for thousands of years. To this day, they remain a staple in the harvest season. But the process of growing fruit can actually have a relatively high carbon footprint, depending on the methods used. Factors like the amount of water used, deforestation, and pesticides can all contribute to the overall impact of the growth stage. Here, we will look at how these factors work within the plum industry. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing plums?

  • How do plums grow: Plums grow on trees, which means that at least part of their carbon footprint is offset because trees have carbon-storing properties. They are best suited to the cool winters and hot summers of the North American continent. 
  • What is the growth duration of plums: Plums have a relatively short growth period, taking only about two to three months to ripen from the blossom. However, their ripe time is also short, meaning that they need to be picked within about two weeks of ripening or they will go to waste. This can significantly impact the overall carbon footprint of plums.
  • What is the land usage of plums: Plum farms can typically fit about 275 plum trees per hectare. This is between apples (250 trees per hectare) and lemons (300 trees per hectare), and far less than peaches (350 trees per hectare) on the density scale. Since fewer plum trees can fit in each hectare, more land is required to produce the same amount of plums, which drives up their carbon footprint. 
  • What is the water usage of plums: Plums need about an inch of water every week, or around 52 inches of water per year. Most plums grown in the US are grown in California, which only gets about 22 inches of water per year. So, significant irrigation is needed for over half of the plum’s water needs. Irrigation uses a lot of resources and thus drives up the carbon footprint of plums. 
  • What is the pesticide and fertilizer usage of plums: Plums tend to use a lot of pesticides, being in the top 20 worst pesticide offenders. Pesticides are actually significant carbon emitters, meaning that plums’ pesticide use contributes significantly to their carbon footprint. 

Plums grown on trees that pull carbon from the atmosphere. However, the carbon footprint of growing plums is still relatively high because they need large amounts of water and pesticides to grow successfully. 

In short, the carbon footprint of growing plums is significant, contributing heavily to its overall carbon footprint. The main areas that contribute to the overall carbon footprint are the low-dense orchards requiring more space, the irrigation required, and the high pesticide use. 

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

The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging plums is significant. This is mainly due to the fact that most of the process is mechanized and the packaging uses cardboard. 

The next major stage in the plum growth process is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This stage is very important, and if certain factors are in place, can actually contribute greatly to the carbon footprint of the fruit. So, let’s see how the process of harvesting, processing, and packaging plums affects their carbon footprint. 

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

From this data, it is clear that the production process of plums, from harvesting to packaging, has a significant carbon footprint. Many factors, including the automation of most of the process, as well as the cardboard used in the packaging, mean that this stage of the process contributes greatly to the overall carbon footprint of plums. 

In short, plums release a significant amount of carbon emissions through their processing stage alone. Mechanized processes during picking and sorting combined with cardboard packaging are the biggest contributors to their carbon footprint. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting of Plums

The transportation carbon footprint of plums is fairly high. The main factors that contribute to this are the average distances traveled and the need to refrigerate the fruit during transportation. Most of the plums consumed in the US are grown in California, however a significant number are also imported from Chile. 

A Plums’ journey has just started when they are packaged. Then, they have to travel the distance between the farm and the grocery store. The distance, as well as the method through which they have to travel, are the two most important factors in determining the footprint of their transportation. So, let’s see how the transportation of plums contributes to their overall carbon footprint.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting plums?

  • Where are plums grown: Plums consumed in the US are grown primarily in California. However, the US also imports a significant amount of their plums from Chile. Thus, the carbon footprint of the transportation of your plums will depend on whether you buy imported or domestic plums and how far you live from California. 
  • How are plums transported: Plums can ripen too fast during the transportation process if they are not kept cool. Ideally, plums should be stored at around 2 degrees celsius (35.6F) to maintain their freshness. This means that the transportation containers, either in trucks, if they are coming from California, or shipping containers, if they are coming from Chile, need to be kept at this temperature. Refrigerated trucks and shipping containers use significantly more energy than non-temperature-controlled ones, which drives up the carbon footprint. 

Shipping plums has a fairly significant effect on their carbon footprint, but this all depends on whether you are buying domestic or imported. Most Americans buy domestic plums, but since the eastern half of the country is more populous than the western half, many are still buying plums that come from across the country, which drives up their carbon footprint. 

In short, transportation contributes significantly to the carbon footprint of the plum. Significant travel distances across the country and refrigerated trucks contribute the most to their emissions. 

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

The end-of-life disposal of plum waste contributes significantly to its carbon footprint. The main reason for this is the lack of consistent composting amongst the average plum consumer. 

The plum carbon footprint journey isn’t done after you consume them. In fact, one of the most important factors that will determine the overall carbon footprint of the plum is how its waste is disposed of. Here, we will look at how this stage in the process affects the plum’s carbon footprint. 

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

Despite there being potential for a more carbon-conscious waste disposal plan, the current statistics show that fruit disposal contributes significantly to climate change. Since plums are generally not disposed of in the most environmentally-friendly ways, this stage of the process contributes significantly to their carbon footprint. 

In short, waste disposal is a significant contributor to the overall carbon footprint of the plum. The fact that food and paper waste are generally not composted or recycled means that plums contribute significantly to landfills. 

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

In comparison to most other foods, plums have a relatively large carbon footprint, especially in comparison to other fruits. Essentially, there are many more carbon-conscious choices than plums, like pineapples, but there are still choices that are a lot worse for the planet, like beef. 

When assessing the carbon footprint of a particular food, it is always important to place it in the context of other foods. This can help you to see the relative impact they have and assist you in making decisions between different foods based on their carbon footprint. In this next part of the article, we will show you how plums compare to other foods in terms of carbon footprint. 

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Plums Compare to Other Types of Fruits

Fruits in general, tend to have lower carbon footprints than many other foods, like dairy products. However, there is still a lot of variation between them. Different transportation distances, the density of orchards, variations in growing methods, and pesticide use can all add up to contribute to their carbon footprints. Here, we will look at how plums compare specifically to other fruits in terms of carbon footprint. 

FruitsCarbon Footprint per lbsCalories per lbsCarbon Footprint per Calories
Avocados0.85 kg (1.9 lb) of CO2e per pound of avocados725 calories per pound1.17kg (2.57lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of avocados 
Grapes0.64 kg (1.42 lbs) of CO2e per pound of grapes300 calories per pound2.13kg (4.7lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of grapes
Cantaloupes0.58kg (1.3lb) of CO2e per pound of cantaloupe154 calories per pound3.77kg (8.31lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of cantaloupes
Kiwis0.56kg (1.24lb) of CO2e per pound of kiwis277 calories per pound2.02kg (4.45lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of kiwis
Blueberries0.45kg (1lb) of CO2e per pound of blueberries256 calories per pound1.75kg (3.86lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of blueberries
Plums0.4 kg (0.88 lb) CO2e per pound of plums209 calories per pound1.91kg (4.21lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of plums
Strawberries0.39kg (0.88lb) of CO2e per pound of strawberries145 calories per pound2.69kg (5.93lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of strawberries
Pomegranates0.39kg (0.87lb) of CO2e per pound of pomegranates375 calories per pound1.04kg (2.29lb) of CO2e per pound of pomegranates
Figs0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs333 calories per pound0.9kg (1.98lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of figs
Papayas0.3kg (0.67lb) of CO2e per pound of papayas195 calories per pound1.54kg (3.4lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of papayas
Oranges0.3kg (0.66 lb) CO2e per pound of oranges213 calories per pound1.41kg (3.11lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of oranges
Dates0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates1,300 calories per pound0.21kg (0.46lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of dates
Apples0.24 kg (0.53 lb) of CO2e per pound of apples236 calories per pound1.02kg (2.25lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of apples
Pears0.23kg (0.52 lb) of CO2e per pound of pears259 calories per pound0.89kg (1.96lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of pears
Bananas0.21 kg (0.48 lb) of CO2e per pound of banana404 calories per pound0.52kg (1.15lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of bananas
Mangoes0.21 kg (0.46 lb) CO2e per pound of mangoes272 calories per pound0.77lb (1.7lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of mangoes
Cherries0.19kg (0.41 lb) of CO2e per pound of cherries227 calories per pound0.84kg (1.85lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of cherries
Limes0.18kg (0.39lb) of CO2e per pound of limes136 calories per pound1.32kg (2.91lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of limes
Peaches0.17kg (0.38lb) CO2e per pound of peaches176 calories per pound0.97kg (2.14lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of peaches
Apricots0.16kg (0.36lb) of CO2e per pound of apricots218 calories per pound0.73kg (1.61lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of apricots
Raspberries0.15kg (0.33lb) of CO2e per pound of raspberries240 calories per pound0.63kg (1.39lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of raspberries
Pineapples0.09 kg (0.20 lb) of CO2e per pound of pineapple227 calories per pound0.4kg (0.88lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of pineapples
Lemons0.09kg (0.19lb) CO2e per pound of lemons132 calories per pound0.68kg (1.5lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of lemons
Grapefruit0.08kg (0.18lb) of CO2e per pound of grapefruit191 calories per pound0.42kg (0.93lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of grapefruits
Blackberries0.07kg (0.15lb) of CO2e per pound of blackberries195 calories per pound0.36kg (0.79lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of blackberries
Clementines0.06 kg (0.13 lb) CO2e per pound of clementines213 calories per pound0.28kg (0.62kg) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of clementines
Watermelons0.05kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of watermelon136 calories per pound0.37kg (0.82lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of watermelons

As we can see from this chart, plums actually have a fairly large carbon footprint in comparison to other fruits. While they emit less than half of the carbon emitted by avocados—they still emit around four times as much carbon as lemons, pineapples, bananas, and strawberries. This means that if you are choosing a fruit to eat, plums might not be the most carbon-conscious choice. However, they are still significantly better than the highest emitter. 

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

Branching outside the world of fruit, plums also have a place among food in general. As a fruit, it is going to be on the lower end, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the lowest. Here, we will look at how plums compare to the greater category of all foods. 

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

Since plums are fairly similar to citrus fruit on the scale of carbon footprint, we can see from this chart that they rank roughly in the middle of the scale of foods in general. They are not as high as most meats, such as beef or lamb, but they still have a significant standing amongst foods in general. Other fruits, as well as grains like corn and wheat, are significantly better carbon-conscious choices. 

How Can You Reduce and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

There are many things you can do to cut down on how your plum consumption impacts the planet. Between carefully considering your consumption habits to reduce carbon emissions, and offsetting your carbon through carbon-extraction schemes, you can consume plums without having a large negative impact on the earth. 

Some of the carbon risks of plums highlighted in this article may sound a bit alarming. However, the good news is that there are actually a lot of things you can do to lower your carbon emissions while still eating plums. Purchasing organic or locally grown plums and disposing of the waste efficiently can help with this. Furthermore, you can consider emission offsets, which work to extract carbon from the atmosphere. Here, we will walk you through how to accomplish both of these things. 

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Plums

Before you start worrying about your offsets, you might be wondering how you can stop producing carbon in the first place through your plum consumption. In this section, we will give you a short list of things you can do to continue consuming plums without the high carbon price tag.

  1. Buy local plums: One of the best ways to reduce your carbon consumption is to reduce one of the biggest contributors to a fruit’s footprint: transportation. If you make sure that the plums you are consuming come from as close a farm as possible, or at least from within the US, you will be reducing your impact by quite a bit. If you live in California, this will be easy, but if you live on the east coast, you can always try buying plums from farmer’s markets, which tend to be much more local. 
  2. Buy organic plums: Plums have a relatively high pesticide rate but organic plums don’t use pesticides. So, they have a much lower carbon footprint. Of course, buying both organic and local plums is the best choice to optimize your carbon footprint. 
  3. Compost and recycle: Another major contributor to the plum’s carbon footprint is improper waste disposal. Make sure that you compost all organic waste and recycle all paper waste to prevent them from ending up in landfills. If you don’t have a government-run composting or recycling program in your area, consider making your own compost and using cardboard as roughage.
  4. Grow your own: If you live in North America, then you’re in luck, because plum trees grow very well in most regions of the continent. They will also grow in any other climates with similar temperature statistics to anywhere in North America, such as Europe and Asia. Plum trees produce about 40 pounds of plums a year. Since you won’t be transporting them or using pesticides, and will be picking them by hand, you will virtually eliminate your plum carbon footprint altogether!

Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your plum carbon emissions. None of these will bring your emissions down to zero, since there are always hidden carbon costs that may be outside of your control. But reduction is always better than nothing! However, if you do want to get your plum emissions down to absolute zero, then you can look into carbon offsets.

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 plums. 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 plums – 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 plums, 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 to, e.g., eating plums.

Final Thoughts

Plums are not the most carbon conscious of fruits. In almost every stage of the process, they emit a significant amount of carbon. Their use of land, irrigation, and pesticides greatly bumps them up during the growing stage, the mechanized harvesting process and cardboard packaging increases their footprint in the processing stage, their moderate transportation times can drive their footprint up in the transport stage, and their tendency to end up in landfills along with their packaging increases their emissions in the final stage.

Overall, plums are one of the less carbon-conscious fruits, but there are still a number of ways, through reduction and offsets, that you can enjoy plums carbon-free!

Stay impactful,

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