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

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

By
Grace Howarth

Read Time:15 Minutes

CLICK TO
SUBSCRIBE

follow follow

Impactful Ninja is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more Learn more .

Affiliate Disclosure

Hey fellow impactful ninja ?

You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.

  • Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.

  • But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.

Why do we add these product links?

First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.

And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.

What do these affiliate links mean for you?
  1. First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.

  3. And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.

What do these affiliate links mean for us?
  1. When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).

  3. And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.

What does this mean for me personally?

You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.

Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.

Stay impactful,

The character Popeye is known to favor spinach, and the fame of this cartoon helped increase spinach sales by 33% in the 1930’s. This leafy green is high in nutrition, but low in calories. It is also an incredible source of dietary magnesium and potassium, as well as being rich in vitamins K, A, E, and C, making it a very healthy choice. Spinach has become more popular in recent years, with sales rocketing by 20% from 2019 to 2020. Yet, much less is shared about the environmental impact, and especially the carbon emissions of spinach. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of spinach?

Spinach has a carbon footprint of 0.30 kg (0.67 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is about average for vegetables. Over 40% of this carbon footprint is due to the transportation of spinach. Furthermore, it is often sold in plastic packaging, which increases the carbon footprint further.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the overall carbon emissions of the life-cycle of spinach. 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 Spinach

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 spinach:

To understand the carbon footprint of spinach, 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 Spinach

The overall carbon footprint of spinach is 0.30 kg (0.67 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is average for crops. Spinach has a lower carbon footprint than other salad vegetables such as salad mix, tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper

With spinach consumption at an all time high, it is important to know the carbon footprint associated with this vegetable. Then, you can make sustainable choices when it comes to your food.

The carbon footprint of spinach0.30 kg (0.67 lbs) of CO2e per pound of spinach

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

The life-cycle stages of spinachEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of spinachThe carbon footprint of growing spinach is 0.08 kg (0.17 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 25.24% of the overall carbon footprint of spinach. However, this is quite a low amount in comparison to other vegetables, due to the fast growing period, and land and water efficiency of this crop. However, the use of pesticides increases the carbon footprint of spinach substantially.
Harvesting, processing, and packaging of spinachThe carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging spinach is 0.10 kg (0.23 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 33.67% of the overall carbon footprint of spinach. This percentage is due to the frequent use of plastic packaging in commercially farmed spinach.
Transporting of spinachThe carbon footprint of transporting spinach is 0.12 kg (0.27 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 41.09% of the overall carbon footprint of spinach. Spinach in the US is grown mainly in California and Arizona, but the US also is the second largest importer of spinach worldwide. The carbon footprint is impacted by transport methods, and food miles, so buying locally reduces the carbon footprint of this stage.
End-of-life of spinachThe carbon footprint of the end-of-life of spinach is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. Spinach makes up 0.6% of all wasted vegetables, with 3,700 tons being wasted a year. The plastic packaging is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste.

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

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing Spinach

The carbon footprint of growing spinach is 0.08 kg (0.17 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 25.24% of the overall carbon footprint of spinach. However, this is quite a low amount in comparison to other vegetables, due to the fast growing period, and land and water efficiency of this crop. However, the use of pesticides increases the carbon footprint of spinach substantially.

A lot of advancements are being made in spinach farming, such as vertical or hydroponic growth. Spinach farmed using these techniques would likely have a lower carbon footprint than spinach farmed traditionally.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing spinach?

In short, spinach is more water and land efficient if grown vertically. Since it is a fast-growing crop, it requires less resources than other vegetables like cucumber and asparagus, but the use of pesticides increases the carbon footprint of spinach. 

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

The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging spinach is 0.10 kg (0.23 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 33.67% of the overall carbon footprint of spinach. This percentage is due to the frequent use of plastic packaging in commercially farmed spinach.

Spinach leaves are harvested, processed, and packaged by machine. Since it is difficult to sell spinach loose, it is often packaged in plastic, which increases the carbon footprint of this crop. 

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

  • How is spinach harvested: Spinach is almost always harvested by machine in the U.S., though some smaller farms may cut leaves with scissors, by hand. Machine-harvesting is far more labor- and time-efficient than hand-harvesting. However, these tractors have negative impacts on soil health and release a lot of carbon emissions, increasing the carbon footprint of spinach.
  • How is spinach processed: Spinach goes through an extensive processing stage. The leaves are washed, dry-cleaned, blanched, and sometimes cut for sale as a pre-chopped ingredient. It can also be frozen, to increase shelf-life. This level of processing has a large impact on the carbon footprint of this product, due to the machines and processing plants, which require vast amounts of energy and release carbon emissions.
  • How is spinach packaged: Due to the difficulty of selling unpackaged spinach, loose leaves, or bundled bunches are almost always sold in polyethylene bags, and then packed into boxes and shipped in pallets. It is incredibly difficult to buy plastic-free spinach, so the use of plastic packaging enormously impacts the overall carbon footprint of spinach. However, some producers are selling spinach in paper bags, or in film made from a sustainable blend of cornstarch.

In short, there is a reliance on machine-harvesting and processing, as well as extensive plastic packaging used for shipping spinach. This produces carbon emissions which increase the overall carbon footprint of spinach. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting of Spinach

The carbon footprint of transporting spinach is 0.12 kg (0.27 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 41.09% of the overall carbon footprint of spinach. Spinach in the US is grown mainly in California and Arizona, but the US also is the second largest importer of spinach worldwide. The carbon footprint is impacted by transport methods, and food miles, so buying locally reduces the carbon footprint of this stage.

Spinach is largely either grown in California, and shipped in refrigerated trucks across the country, or imported from Mexico. This creates carbon emissions, but this can be reduced through more regional methods of growing, such as vertical farming

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting spinach?

In short, as the US is the second largest importer of spinach worldwide, a lot of the produce purchased may have a higher carbon footprint. To avoid this, try to find spinach grown locally. With the advancements of vertical farming, spinach could be grown even more locally, reducing the carbon footprint further.

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

The carbon footprint of the end-of-life of spinach is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. Spinach makes up 0.6% of all wasted vegetables, with 3,700 tons being wasted a year. The plastic packaging is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste.

Spinach leaves can degrade very quickly, not usually lasting more than 7-10 days. This short shelf life could lead to more food waste. Spinach is compostable, but often ends up in landfill. The packaging is usually recyclable, but can also end up in landfill if not disposed of properly.

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

In short, spinach could be wasted due to a short shelf-life. This crop is almost always packaged in plastic, increasing the carbon footprint. To reduce waste, be conscious of using the entire bag of spinach, and recycling any plastic waste. 

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

Spinach has an average carbon footprint compared to other vegetables. As well as this, vegetables tend to produce far fewer carbon emissions than other types of food. 

Let’s see how spinach compares with other vegetables.

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

In comparison to other vegetables, the carbon footprint of spinach is quite average. For example, cucumbers produce over three times the carbon emissions of spinach. However, in comparison to very low-carbon vegetables like cabbage, spinach produces over four times as many carbon emissions. This is because salad vegetables tend to need more resources to grow, making their carbon footprint higher than root vegetables.

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, spinach has an average carbon footprint in comparison with other vegetables. But how does it compare to other types of food?

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

Like brassicas, spinach is one of the more sustainable options in comparison to other types of food. It produces around twelve times less greenhouse gas emissions than beef. 

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

Even though the carbon emissions for spinach is 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 relatively average CO2e, such as spinach. However, there are ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

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

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Spinach

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Spinach can be grown year-round, but is best in spring months. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced and makes it a much more sustainable choice.
  2. Choose organic: Organic spinach 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: Spinach often can end up going bad in the refrigerator. Avoid this by storing your salad correctly, and consuming it quickly. Spinach has a shelf life of about ten days, but this can be extended by storing leaves in Tupperware, drying them in a salad spinner, and reviving them in ice water. Freezing spinach is a great way of reducing food waste, and can easily be turned into smoothies, soups, or sauces.

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

Final Thoughts

Spinach has a relatively low carbon footprint in comparison to other food, but an average carbon footprint when compared with other vegetables. Try to reduce your carbon footprint by eating organic, reducing food waste, and purchasing local, seasonal produce. As vertical farming becomes a more viable source for the production of spinach, the growing process will have a lower carbon footprint, and be more localized. When you do enjoy spinach, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created, to make this healthy snack a more sustainable option! 

Stay impactful,

Illustration of a signature for Grace Howarth

Sources

Photo of author
Did you like this article?

Get the 5-minute newsletter that makes reading impactful news enjoyable—packed with actionable insights to make a positive impact in your daily life.

Three Related Posts

One Unrelated Post