When developing sustainable product-packaging combinations, you often ask yourself questions such as:
Which of these two packaging materials is more sustainable?
How sustainable am I with this product-packaging combination, compared to my competitor?
How can I determine if I will realise my target, for example a 10% reduction of CO2 emission, with this product-packaging combination?
How circular is my packaging?
When answering these questions, you want to be able to estimate or measure sustainability. This is often done with a Lifecycle Analysis (LCA), which determines the environmental impact of the product-packaging combination, from the initial extraction of raw materials via production and usage to its ultimate disposal. Aspects such as energy usage, material usage, waste streams, and emissions into the environment are taken into account. The environmental impact is usually expressed in CO2 values, although water usage, toxicity or other ecological indicators may also be used.
Life cycle analysis (LCA)
A life cycle analysis (LCA) is used to analyse the environmental impact of a product, for example a smartphone, or a product-packaging combination, for example a bag of soup. For packaging materials, this analysis can be used to compare alternative product-packaging combinations in a similar context. An LCA can also be used by policy makers to analyse the environmental impact of their policies.
An LCA is used to determine the environmental impact of every process involved in the development of a product-packaging combination, i.e. every step of a packaging’s lifecycle. A step may be the transport from one factory to another or the production of the raw material. Because collecting the data pertaining to each of these processes yourself is an impossible task, there are databases from which the necessary information on the sub-processes can be retrieved.
An ISO standard (ISO series 14040) is available for the development of LCAs. The development of an LCA consists of several steps. Firstly, the goal and scope are defined. The second step is the delineation, during which the system limits are set and the various processes are described. Next, the environmental impact of each of these processes is determined using a certain analysis method. Finally, the results are interpreted, the assumptions are evaluated and conclusions are drawn.
When reading and interpreting the results of an LCA, it is therefore important to know which system limits were used, how the processes were described, what database was used, what analysis method was applied and what assumptions were made. For example, it is not possible to compare product-packaging combinations from different LCAs without first comparing the aforementioned aspects. It is not easy to draw up a complete LCA yourself, but there are several agencies that specialise in it.
Simplified tools are also available. These do not conduct a full-spectrum LCA, but still give users an idea of the environmental impact of for example a specific part of a packaging’s lifecycle. Some organisations use these tools to compare different packaging materials. That is usually done by drawing up a list of all packaging materials that the organisation uses, including their material weight per product unit. If multi-layer materials are used, the different layers are included on the list as separate materials. For each of these materials, a database, for example Ecoinvent, is used to determine the environmental impact in eco points and/or CO2 equivalent values. In some cases, a rough estimate of the effect of recycling and the use of recycled materials can be taken into consideration. Delft University of Technology has developed a free app, Idemat, that also allows users to determine these values. However, its database currently contains a limited number of packaging materials.
Tools like these make it possible to compare different packaging materials in a relatively simple manner. It is important to remember that you are only looking at the environmental impact of the materials. The effects on product usage and waste separation are not included in these analyses, even though they can have a considerable influence on the total environmental impact.
That is why these tools are sometimes used in combination with a full LCA. A full LCA can be conducted for a product group to determine the main sustainability factors and the bandwidth of the effect that the choice of packaging has on the environmental impact of the product-packaging combination as a whole.
The packaging and the product
Sustainable product-packaging combinations are always the result of the right combination of product properties and packaging properties. When making a packaging more sustainable, it is important to first prevent product loss, avoid product wastage, and guarantee the safety of the user and the environment. Most of the environmental impact of a product-packaging combination is caused by the product itself; around 10% of the total environmental impact is caused by the packaging. Once all these aspects have been optimally safeguarded, you can explore options to make the packaging more sustainable. Examples include reducing the amount of material used or using sustainable material applications, without compromising the packaging functionality.
Improving the sustainability of packaging is more than simply reducing the amount of material used. The following measures will make packaging more sustainable as well:
- preventing the wastage of raw materials during its production;
- tailoring the packaging to fit the product that will be transported in it;
- using as many renewable or recycled materials as possible for its production;
- using sustainable technologies and energy during its production;
- setting up the logistical process as efficiently as possible and avoiding the transport of empty air.
That is why it is important to take each of the following aspects into consideration when developing a sustainable packaging solution: product protection, food safety, effective product usage en measuring sustainability.
EnvPack an LCA-based tool for environmental assessment of packaging chains
Paper – published by The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
DoorTAStend, LCA study of carrier bags
Paper – published by Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging
Sustainability of reusable packaging – Current situation and trends
Paper – published by Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University