In the sustainability arena, we are used to work with a diversity of common sustainability assumptions. However, some of the assumptions that we trust might not be as right as we think they are. A critical eye is required before we consider basing our work on one of these assumptions. As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust some of the myths that surround sustainability. With this piece, we kick off the “Sustainability Mythbusters” series and start exploring the most common sustainability assumptions to see if they are true or just myths. Let’s start checking the impact of packaging.
For consumers, packaging material is one of the most eye-catching aspects of a product. The most important goal of packaging is to protect and preserve the product, but often extra packaging is also used for labeling and transport purposes.
Packaging is often perceived as being one of the bad guys in terms of environmental impact; considerations of some product impacts sometimes do not include the product itself but solely focus on their packaging.
Packaging Design in Constant Evolution
Since the early days of life cycle assessment, numerous studies have been performed to assess the impact of different types of packaging materials and designs, and the packaging industry has been working for years to reinvent itself. An example can be found in lightweight packaging, which can either mean the material is replaced by a lighter alternative (think of wine in pouches or paper bottles rather than glass), or a reduction of the amount of used materials (for instance in the case of plastic water bottles). The advantage of lightweight packaging is the reduction in emissions from transport. Other trends in packaging include the use of recycled material, or the manufacture of concentrates (such as liquid detergents and other care products). Concentrated products contain less water, which not only leads to a significant reduction in packaging material and accompanying waste, but also lessens the transport impacts.
The UNEP SETAC Life Cycle Initiative concluded that there are few, if any, generalities about what makes a package environmentally preferable in terms of materials or design attributes. Therefore, it is recommended to use an objective life cycle assessment to compare different packaging styles. The optimal choice will depend on characteristics such as the raw materials chosen, the product being packed, and the accompanying supply chain.
So, packaging as a bad guy: Myth or fact?
Different packaging styles all have their own benefits and downsides, which makes it important to watch out for burden shifting.
In any case, the choice for a different material or design should not have a negative influence on the primary goal of packaging: protection and preservation. If the packaging is damaged and the shelf life of the product thereby reduced, ultimately the environmental impact of producing a new product is likely to be higher.