Life cycle assessments – a useful tool or greenwashing?
There is no such thing as innately good or bad packaging, and the environmental impact should always be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. (Image: Nick Fewings/unsplash)
Life cycle assessments – a useful tool or greenwashing?
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.
Life cycle assessments offer the opportunity to take a whole bundle of environmental effects into account and evaluate them. (Image: Toa Heftiba/unsplash)
An ecological evaluation based on gut instinct isn’t a good idea, say the auditors, because a true evaluation of the environmental impact of an item of packaging needs to be a targeted process. Good models for life cycle assessments are, however, highly complex. Life cycle auditors like bifa therefore work with professional software, extensive databases, their own data sets and a lot of experience.
According to bifa’s experience, the actual ecological value of various areas is often overestimated if they have been the subject of public discussion for a long period. To give an example: in the public’s perception, the benefits of reusable products are self-evident. In fact, an ecological comparison of single-use and reusable solutions must be performed in each individual instance. Sometimes the results are surprising, as reusable solutions can also obtain poorer results than or not be too far off those of single-use packaging.
Life cycle auditors have equally differentiated views on the subject of recycling. Recycling packaging makes an important contribution to reducing raw material consumption. However, in the analysis, a non-recyclable item of packaging made from composite film, which uses only little material, can receive better ecological results than recyclable packaging that requires far greater quantities of such a material.
There is no such thing as innately good or bad packaging, as Thorsten Pitschke, Project Manager, states. “We always look at the individual case in detail: How much material has been used, how many times can reusable packaging actually be reused and far more. As environmental auditors, we avoid making blanket statements, as sweeping verdicts such as ‘recyclable products are better than non-recyclable ones’ or ‘paper is more environmentally friendly than plastic’ are incorrect. Each material has benefits and drawbacks.”
Considering the ecological footprint
The subject of climate change is discussed intensely in the media. Therefore, in evaluating packaging, often only the carbon footprint, and thus the aspect of climate impact, is contemplated. In doing this, coffee cups, an example of a hotly discussed recycling topic, actually only have a slight effect on the environment with regard to climate change, according to bifa. Life cycle assessments offer the opportunity to take a whole bundle of environmental effects into account and evaluate them. The results of an analysis like this are generally not black and white, but lie in shades of grey between the two. Life cycle results are also always just a snapshot of that moment in time. Products and processes with a poor life cycle assessment can become better and the assessment criteria can change. In many analyses, the energy required is an important influencing variable. However, many companies are making big strides here too: if they switch from coal-fired electricity to renewable energy, for example, the life cycle assessment result will also change. “We therefore play out different scenarios and ask what would change if other energy sources were used or other materials were processed.”
And that’s not all: sustainability is more than just ecology. Therefore, not only the life cycle assessment should be taken into account; social and economic criteria often also play a role for packaging. The bifa institute often includes a business economics segment in its life cycle assessments. It’s even harder to estimate the social impact, such as the consequences of raw material breakdown or the manufacturing processes on the living conditions of workers, for one.