Questions from the Quarantine
I am writing this while a significant part of the world is in lockdown mode. Among the overwhelming streams of news about our newest tiny foe, some of them explain to how thing are improving: fewer cars polluting out there, fewer factories burning fossil fuels, so cleaner air, less carbon dioxide (CO2)…
Which brought me to the subject of this post.
Carbon footprint seems to be the standard by which a product sustainability is judged upon.
But carbon footprint is just a variable related to climate change, and there are other factors that show the effects on the environment of a product (or service).
While is not practical to do a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA, also known as Life Cycle Analysis) for each specific product, I wanted to check if using carbon footprint as an indicator is simplifying things too much.
To be clear, I have no dog In this fight, neither any a priori conclusion, so I’ll just tell you what I found out.
What is Carbon Footprint?
The Carbon Cycle
Unless you have been living under a rock, I assume the following topics are familiar to you, so I will sum up why CO2 deserves so much attention. However, instead of recapping what greenhouse gases (GHG) are and their role on Earth’s climate change, this nice video will explain some of these topics, as well as what the carbon cycle is:
And then I’ll let NASA‘s website do the hard work of explain the rest.
Carbon footprint is the amount of CO2 (some definitions include other greenhouse gases such as methane – CH4– and nitrous oxide -N2O-) released into the atmosphere by a particular human activity. It is usually measured as tons (or kilograms) of CO2 emitted per year, or per ton of material or product.
Carbon Footprint in Packaging
Despite the continuing efforts of the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, packaging – especially plastic packaging- is usually signalled as one of the major culprits.
While there are numerous examples of superfluously over-packaged products, there are also many initiatives to make packaging more sustainable, some of them also help to reduce costs, for instance, lightweighting or using mineral fillers.
Other improvements reduce energy consumption, such as the change from “flat-bed” to rotary machines in thermoforming.
However, it’s important to remember that the packaging share of a product’s carbon footprint is usually quite small (compare to the product’s) and as commented on my first post, packaging can help solve a much important problem: food waste.
Carbon Footprint and Plastics
By 2050, the plastic industry is estimated to account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions and if plastics production continues at its current pace, by 2030 the emissions associated with production would reach 1.34 gigatons annually.
Regarding the end-of-life processes for plastic products, although in theory they could be recycled or reused with no loss of quality (following the cradle to cradle strategy, see below), this is not currently happening for several reasons (most of them related to the way recyclable plastics are collected).
The reality is that around 80% of waste plastics goes to landfill, around 10% is incinerated, and only about 13% (globally, i.e. 42% is the EU average and 20% in the USA) is recycled (even less can go back into food packaging because of food safety concerns).
More than 60 countries are introducing legislation aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags and other single use plastic materials.
But the solutions to problems caused by plastic packaging are far from clear.
A new report from the Green Alliance has shown the companies are under “considerable and justified pressure” to move away from single-use plastics, despite the fact that the alternatives could have a higher carbon footprint or harder to recycle.
There’s also a lack of an “agreed methodology” for evaluating the environmental impact of different materials.
For instance, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 1 gram of plastic generates more than 1.1 grams of CO2 equivalent, while other analyses state that a 500ml plastics water bottle has a carbon footprint of more than 82g.
Current alternatives (cans, laminated cartons, or glass) don’t always mean better option for the environment. For example, glass is widely recycled, but requires a lot of energy for its production and transportation (see this post on glass packaging sustainability).
According to this report from the American Chemistry Council substituting mostplastic used in the consumer goods sector with alternative materials, would increase environmental costs by a factor of four:Bioplastics have also their drawbacks. They are more expensive and cannot always provide the same functions.
As commented on this post the designed end-of-life for some of these materials is composting, whether in an industrial plant or home compost. In other environments they biodegrade – but very slowly- and generate CO2 in landfills.
Carbon footprint limitations
There are multiple ways in which a product can impact the environment, and carbon footprint only measures (or estimates) one, climate change (GHG emissions).
So, let’s have a quick look at.
Other Ecological Indicators
The carbon footprint concept is related to and grew out of the older idea of ecological footprint a concept invented in the early 1990s by Canadian ecologist William Rees and Swiss-born regional planner Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia.
Carbon footprint is one indicator related to climate change, it does not take in to account other important environmental variables like water use, toxic substances, or eutrophication.
As mentioned previously, a LCA is a much more complete tool for measuring the environmental impact of a product or service throughout its life cycle.
First of all, Life Cycle Analysis and Life Cycle Assessment are the same thing, the latter is a term more widely adopted in the US while the former is more common in the UK.
A LCA analyzes several environmental impacts along the different stages of a product’s life.
In packaging, it can be used to optimize design, compare different packaging materials, or evaluate alternatives to improve sustainability.
LCAs have the advantage of standardization, ISO 14044 details the requirements for conducting a LCA.
A LCA is also part of a LCSA ( life cycle sustainability assessment), the evaluation of all environmental, social and economic negative impacts and benefits in decision-making processes towards more sustainable products throughout their life cycle.
To simplify: LCSA= environmental LCA+ economic LCC + social LCA.
For more detailed info about LCSA, please check this article.
To confuse things a bit more:
- LCI is the life cycle inventory, which is the data collection portion of LCA.
- Life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) converts ‘inventoried’ flows into simpler indicators. In LCIA, the inventory is analyzed for environmental impact. For example, manufacturing a product may consume a known volume of natural gas (this data is part of the inventory); in the LCIA phase, the global warming impact from combustion of that fuel is calculated.
- LCC life cycle costing is an economic approach that sums up the ”total costs of a product, process or activity discounted over its lifetime”. It is associated with cost in general rather than just environmental costs.
Digression: Planet boundaries and environmental footprints
In order to see the larger picture for environmental footprint indicators.
Environmental Footprint Assessment (EFA) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) are both based upon life cycle thinking but differ in aim and approach. Environmental footprints are resource use and emissions oriented, combined referred to as pressure oriented, whereas LCA is impact oriented.
Back to Packaging
Let’s focus again on how to measure and improve the sustainability in packaging products.
In its Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability (GPPS), the Consumer Good Forum provides over 40 different sustainable packaging indicators and metrics that span material use, water use, energy use, material health, clean production and transport, cost and performance, community impact, worker impact and other areas throughout the packaging supply chain. These include:
Obviously, there are too many parameters to check, and unfortunately no clear guidelines to choose. So, in each case, one should choose the more useful indicators (and corresponding metrics) depending on the range of environmental, economic and social parameters in which one wants to study the impact of their product.
Carbon Footprint & Marketing
We have seen that a LCA is a pretty thorough analysis of the environmental impact of a product, and can be used to compare sustainability improvements in one product, or different types of packaging.
However,the results of an LCA are difficult to communicate to the final customer. A carbon footprint is a simple number, and much easier to “sell”.
This is not a trivial matter, consumers can influence both market trends and environmental policies.
In this survey the preferences and willingness to pay for different carbon labels and a climate-friendly claim were explored in six European countries.
Results show that a carbon label on a product increases the purchase probability and that consumers are willing to pay a (small) price premium for it.
Showing the carbon footprint on a product should go beyond a mere marketing ‘gimmick’.
It’s paradoxical that offering a greener product in response to stronger climate concerns does not necessarily reduce a firm’s overall level of carbon emissions.
This occurs because the demand effect of lowering the carbon footprint may translate into higher sales and thus a greater organizational footprint.
Carbon footprint is a single environmental indicator that gives information about the effect on climate change of a product or service.
A LCA is a more complete analysis, but in the case of packaging products is more difficult to communicate to the final consumer. To complement this data, some other parameters can be added, like use of energy or water used to produce it (AKA water footprint).
Regarding this last indicator, there are several articles that propose unifying definitions and methods for each of the CF and the WF across countries and sectors.
The issue of environmental indicators is too complex to analyses in a short article. However, I think I can draw a few conclusions:
- For designing and comparing packaging, an LCA seems a complete tool, and while there are not perfect, there are many software tools to perform it (in house or outsourced).
- Carbon footprint is a good indicator of GHG emissions, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate with other environmental impacts.
- It could be useful to add some other indicators, and there’s literature that recommends synergizing carbon and water footprint. (by the way, most carbon footprint labels show information about the final product, without detailing info about packaging).
- Checking this Environmental Labels document, I see there are life cycle data declarations regulated under ISO 14025, but I haven’t found any example of these lon any actual product on the market. I found that there is type of document called Environmental Product Declaration, with some useful info that could be shared with the final customer.
I will update this post as soon as I have more data.
April 2020, Bruno Rey - The Packaging Blog.