Plastic or paper – which packaging performs better in a life cycle assessment? The answer appears to be simple. Plastic packaging produces mountains of rubbish and has fallen out of favour with consumers, whereas paper is perceived as very environmentally friendly. If you ask the life cycle auditors, there is no blanket answer, because to them both materials have benefits and drawbacks that need to be weighed up in each individual case. However, in the experience of environmental research and consulting company bifa Umweltinstitut GmbH, the results of life cycle assessments constantly lead to misconceptions. bifa has been working on this method for 25 years.
Anyone who follows news from the packaging industry will be familiar with the term “life cycle assessment”. Using this method, the environmental impact of products, processes or services is systematically analysed throughout their entire life cycle. Life cycle assessment has experienced a real boom lately due to the sustainability debate. With a life cycle assessment, paper processors, for example, can prove that their paper is more environmentally friendly than plastic, while plastics manufacturers obtain confirmation that their film packaging is the best solution for certain applications. This is confusing for consumers and so life cycle assessments are often accused of putting out the results that the companies want to hear. However, life cycle assessments aren’t so easy to explain, believes Thorsten Pitschke, Project Manager at bifa Umweltinstitut GmbH. Good professional practice is set down in DIN standards 14040 and 14044, but: “Life cycle assessment is not a protected term, so every auditor sets different focal points. Thus, results that appear to contradict each other can still be correct.”
In practice, this can mean that a thin packaging film made of a mono-material can have a far better environmental impact than thicker, potentially coated, paper packaging. Or maybe that a glass bottle, which is seen as very environmentally friendly by many, receives a worse life cycle assessment than a reusable plastic bottle.