Understanding how to use Life Cycle Assessments for design and decision-making

CPIR | 2020-09-08

More and more brands are using life cycle assessments (LCA) to understand the environmental impacts of their packaging. In one recent example, Frugalpac launched a paperboard wine bottle and turned to LCA to better understand the package’s carbon and water footprint. Their LCA found that the paperboard design reduced the carbon footprint by up to 84% and used four times less water than glass wine bottles.

What can an LCA tell you about the environmental impacts of your packaging? How might you use LCA tools to guide product development? Full LCAs are typically nuanced and complicated, following ISO standards for how they should be set up and conducted. There are also limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn from results, and how the results can be used for marketing claims.

In Europe, there is even potential for regulation of claims. As part of its circular economy action plan, the European Commission is proposing using an LCA-like indicator to combat greenwashing. Under the new proposal, companies will have to substantiate environmental claims using a new methodology called the Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint (PEF). As the PEF moves from design to implementation starting in 2021, companies can start to familiarize themselves with LCA concepts to be better prepared for these new regulations.

Get familiar with the power and pitfalls of life cycle assessments with our new course, where you’ll learn the key elements of an LCA:

  1. LCA is a way to understand product impacts and progress towards goalsLife cycle assessments are a way to learn about a range of environmental impacts from the sourcing, manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal or recovery of packaging. It may include calculations of the energy and water used during these life cycle stages, or the greenhouse gases emitted and the impacts on aquatic toxicity.In short, LCAs are a way to “look under the hood” to better understand the environmental impacts of products, and to see how these impacts measure up against corporate sustainability goals. LCAs have historically been used by academia to draw insights into environmental impacts for a wide range of industries, and are now poised to emerge as an important tool for business decision-making and accurate environmental marketing.
  2. LCA results vary greatly based on inputsOne of the most important things to understand about LCA is that the results are completely dependent on what assumptions are used to model the package in question. For example, it will depend on which parts of the packaging system (e.g. primary or secondary packaging), and which parts of the life cycle (e.g. sourcing, manufacturing, transport, and/or consumer use) are included in the calculations, and which are omitted.It is important not to leave out key parts of the broader system, especially when a package undergoes changes in material or design. For instance, if we leave out secondary packaging despite key changes to the primary packaging, we won’t see the full picture.
  3. LCAs provide insights, but cannot prioritize impacts for usLCAs are a tool to help us organize what we know about environmental impacts from manufacturing, distribution, and disposal, and apply it to a specific product. An LCA can show us a plethora of different environmental impacts, but it can’t tell us which one is most important. Ultimately, you’ll need to decide how to interpret, prioritize, and act on the information generated in an LCA. This is often the most difficult part of conducting an LCA, and where many sustainability and packaging professionals experience challenges.

The Essentials of Life Cycle Assessment is the first step to understanding the nuances of using LCA results to guide decision-making, set priorities, and accurately communicate product attributes to customers and consumers.