It seems like everyone is talking about sustainability and the environmental impact of the products they buy, including sustainable packaging. This is especially true for younger consumers; 83% of consumers under 44 say they are willing to pay more for a product that uses sustainable packaging, according to a 2021 study.
Companies must assess the impact of the packaging they use to meet this demand. But understanding the environmental impact of your food’s packaging can be overwhelming. Where do you begin? What factors do you include?
From sourcing materials to packaging disposal, this post aims to help commercial food producers navigate food packaging life cycle assessments and learn step-by-step how to calculate the environmental impact of their packaging.
Sustainable vs. Standard Packaging
Despite the pressure to use alternatives to plastics, there are many cases where plastic is the superior option for strength, consistency, and cost. If you are a commercial food producer that uses plastic packaging, understanding how environmental impact and lifecycle carbon emissions are calculated can help your company make more informed decisions.
For example, switching to sustainable packaging that uses recycled PET will have less impact than new plastic packaging, according to lifecycle assessment (LCA) tools.
Many companies today are in the process of implementing their Environmental, Sustainability, and Governance (ESG) plans, whether they’ve had one for years or are just beginning the process. Part of these discussions around implementation must include packaging, making an LCA tool essential.
What Goes Into LCA Assessments
Is plastic more or less impactful than glass or styrofoam? An LCA tool can tell you the “cradle-to-grave” impact based on the following factors:
- Material sourcing – Where did the material originate, how was it created, and what was the environmental impact of the process?
- Transportation – Did the materials and packaging travel globally or came from the next state over?
- Manufacturing – Did the manufacturing process take a lot of energy or use toxic chemicals?
- Material scrap rate – How much waste is involved in packaging production?
- Water use – Does the product or its packaging require a lot of water to produce, either in the product or as part of the manufacturing process?
- Disposal/recycling at end of life – Is the material recyclable? Biodegradable?
By understanding these factors, companies can get a full picture of their impact and make more educated calculations and comparisons on impact and cost.
Types of LCA tools
Two main types of LCA tools are available for manufacturing: full life cycle assessment and streamlined life cycle assessment.
- Full LCA tools use industry-accepted data throughout the entire lifecycle. They are more accurate but also more costly to procure and may take longer to run assessments.
- Streamlined LCAs use ISO-based LCA techniques to streamline the process and focus on certain areas, such as only the impact of packaging. For some companies, this provides a simple assessment for quick design decisions.
Some packaging life cycle assessment options include:
- EcoImpact COMPASS (Comparative Packaging Assessment) – from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and created by TRAYAK, which is the online life cycle assessment tool Lacerta uses.
- EIO-LCA Vital Metrics – The “economic input-output life-cycle assessment” aims to quantify the environmental impact that’s directly attributed to each sector of the economy and how much each sector relied on the other for production, including packaging.
Some full LCA tools include:
- openLCA – This software solution provides an extremely detailed analysis of a product’s full life cycle and environmental impact.
- GaBI – Not just an environmental assessment, but a platform to review the full ESG impact of a product.
- SimaPro – This company offers several LCA solutions, from online life cycle assessment tools to software that fully integrates into company operations.
When to Calculate Environmental Impact
Deciding to invest in an LCA assessment tool is a big decision, but can also be a positive one.
Here’s when conducting an assessment is helpful for your company:
- When implementing ESG initiatives – the LCA provides helpful data you can use to determine sustainability goals.
- When considering whether to change to more sustainable packaging options – having data on the full life cycle can provide new insights on what materials and designs to use.
- When undergoing a package redesign – small changes in the percentage of post-consumer plastic (PCR) could make a difference.
- When you need to back up sustainability claims – LCA tools offer hard data you can share publicly and can be an important asset in messaging and marketing.
Whatever the reason for conducting a life cycle assessment, the information you gain is valuable not just to your company's future but also to the planet's future.