The Myth about LCA in Packaging

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Courtesy of thinkstep

Looking to establish simple goals to drive sustainable packaging? Many companies are focusing on lightweighting, recyclability, recycled content, and renewable content for their sustainable packaging efforts. Bonus: all of these metrics can be measured based on empirical information about the final design alone, thus removing the need to assess the environmental performance with something like a life cycle assessment (LCA), right? 

Wrong. 

Taking a life cycle view ensures that improvements you make in design actually do translate into measurable improvements in environmental performance, not to mention that a holistic approach also ensures you’re addressing the biggest issues for your particular design. Here is a look at why you are putting your brand at risk without taking a life cycle view of your package design.

Lightweighting

Less is more with packaging, particularly from a consumer’s perspective. But as you know, a primary function of packaging is to protect the product. The challenge is to find that sweet spot between reducing packaging weight and preventing product loss. Taking a life cycle view is important for evaluating this trade-off by finding the balance between material weight, impact, and product protection, and ensuring you’re not spending resources finding ways to lightweight when the materials themselves or something in the product is a much bigger concern to your stakeholders. If reducing packaging weight also involves use of alternative materials, LCA can ensure that the environmental burden is not inadvertently increased elsewhere in the packaging’s life cycle. 

Example: OB tampons have a lower waste footprint because they exclude the applicator. 

Understanding the extent of the reduction simply requires calculating the difference in material needed. 

But OB did an LCA on the comparison anyway, just to validate that going to market with a claim of ‘less waste’ wasn’t disingenuous due to other impacts in the supply chain. Since raw materials are the biggest impact of tampons, reducing the material needed to achieve the same function was inherently a positive step. This may not always be true though, thereby increasing the need for quantifying the impact copmarison; food or electronics packaging are particular examples where lightweighting is more likely to jeopardize the protection of the product and therefore increase the chance of spoilage or waste. 

Recyclability and Recycled content

Does increasing the recyclability or amount of recycled content improve environmental performance? It intuitively makes sense to recover materials for productive second use rather than incinerate or landfill them, but it’s also important to consider the energy or resource burden required to recycle materials. 

For some materials such as aluminum, recycled content is a clear winner over virgin content from an environmental perspective because both scrap collection and reprocessing require far less energy than virgin content production. For others, the outcome is not as obvious, either due to use of renewable energy in virgin material production, inefficient material recovery systems, or other reasons. LCA can help illuminate the trade-offs associated with recycled content use by material. Through LCA, packaging designers can evaluate both environmental costs and benefits associated with recycling, as well as better understand environmental impact differences between virgin and recycled content production.

Example: The Corrugated Packaging Alliance conducted an industry study to better understand and benchmark the environmental performance of an average corrugated product, in part to support a response to customer and public demands for environmental information. Corrugate is a widely recycled product, but part of understanding the profile was quantifying what impact this recovery has on key environmental metrics. The study not only demonstrated that recycling reduces the release of carbon emissions at end of life, but also how much of a reduction occurs. This quantification will be helpful for promotion of recycling initiatives to municipalities and customers, and provides a benchmark for measuring how much the industry could improve the footprint if recycling rates are increased.

Renewable content

Moving away from fossil and non-renewable sources for packaging is a major component of the goal of sustainable packaging. However, as the push for corn ethanol as a renewable fuel source taught us (food availability and politics aside), renewable isn’t always preferable on all metrics, especially if fossil-based fuels and fertilizer are required to grow the crop that becomes the raw material. LCA can better inform packaging design with renewable materials by helping designers ensure the material of interest has a preferable environmental profile (compared to other renewable materials as well as to non-renewable materials). 

Example: Coke’s efforts to drive a plant-based bottle have been driven by a desire to move towards renewable sources for packaging, but Coke is also clear that conducting an assessment of the greenhouse gas impact from Plant Bottle is critical to their strategy. 

The takeaway

No surprises. Keep your goals simple and straight forward, but ensure you are driving intended consequences that are in line with your overall sustainability objectives.

Think you can’t incorporate LCA into your decisions because of the time or expense? Think again. 

Several tools are available on the market today that can inform decisions at the pace of business. Check out the free demo of the GaBi Envision tool to test packaging scenarios for alignment with your goals.

Ultimately, your company’s sustainability strategy should inform which metrics are most important for packaging design, as PE outlined in its 2013 whitepaper on the ‘5 Steps to Sustainable Packaging’, and whether an impact is actually an issue for your package – and the overall product system - is a key component to determining it. Without a strategy in place, designers can conduct LCAs but it will be unclear how they benefit packaging design or the company’s goals. Integrating LCA—and more generally, sustainability—into the packaging design process requires planning and integration in order to truly achieve change.

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