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Life Cycle Assessment: How To Evaluate Environmental Impact of Packaging

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Assorted garbage on the beach

In today’s environmental landscape, understanding the cradle-to-grave (raw material extraction to disposal) impact of a good or service is crucial. It’s about unpacking your environmental footprint and using this in-depth knowledge to optimize your product lifecycle management.

Let’s start with the basics, understanding what a life cycle assessment is, and how it feeds into a product life cycle. Once we’re on top of the various stages and benefits, we’ll unpack precisely how to conduct a life cycle assessment, defining the various phases you’ll need to consider.

If we’re truly going to reduce our environmental impact, we must consciously incorporate life cycle thinking into everything we do. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to think like this, to create with intention, and develop a far greater understanding of what “impact” means in its entirety.

What is Life Cycle Assessment?

Let’s take a step back and look at the definition of a life cycle. Most of us are familiar with the phrase. It’s something you come across in school, usually associated with plants or animals, giving you an in-depth understanding of an ecosystem. In this case, it’s the consecutive or interlinked stages of a product, service, or system. It’s the story from inception to disposal.

Now that we understand the essence of a life cycle, where does the assessment come into play? A life cycle assessment, also known as an LCA or an environmental impact assessment, is a systematic set of procedures for compiling and examining the effect of an entire process. Essentially, it assesses the cycle covering everything from the energy required to create it to the associated environmental effects we can directly attribute to it.

During a life cycle assessment, your goal is to evaluate the impact on the environment at every point in a product’s existence. Yes, we’re talking about the entire supply chain, the production itself, the use phase, and all the way through to waste management.

Why is Life Cycle Assessment Important?

Now that it’s clear how thorough a life cycle assessment actually is, we need to unpack why it’s necessary. Why is this level of detail required? Think of it this way: You may produce a good or a service that reduces costs, energy, and emissions during the production phase only to triple its environmental impact in the disposal phase. For example, if a car is developed that has double the gas mileage of a regular car during use but leaches toxic chemicals upon disposal, that may not be a net benefit to the environment. An LCA will determine if the product is genuinely a solution from start to finish.

It’s very easy to focus on one element of a product or service, especially if it delivers an eco-friendly option that appeals to customers. Marketers will jump at the opportunity to highlight the pros, giving consumers the illusion that the product or service is “good” for the environment.

If businesses don’t conduct an LCA sustainability report, it’s impossible to guarantee that this is the case. To truly make a difference and reduce your environmental footprint, your product or service must be a solution in every stage.

Who Needs Life Cycle Assessment?

There’s no question that sustainability is relevant for everyone. If you consider who could benefit from a better understanding of their business’ impact, the answer will likely be everybody. While this is true一and of course, the impact is essential一a life cycle assessment is most appropriate if you’re looking to build a comprehensive CSR (corporate social responsibility) strategy. Creating a “sustainable” arm for your business is more challenging than you think. That’s where the structure an LCA provides comes to the rescue.

Ok, so who benefits from a life cycle assessment the most? It’s easier to understand the advantages when you look at a particular department. For example, your research and development department would use a life cycle analysis to ensure compliance. In some countries, it’s a requirement if you’re going to tender on a public project. Compiling a steadfast report on your environmental footprint could be the difference between winning or losing new business.

If you’re producing new products, a life cycle assessment has to be the first task on your to-do list. Nowadays, it’s not worth pursuing your concept without a concrete understanding of the impact. With conscious consumerism on the rise, this could make or break your product’s success.

Supply chain management and procurement both benefit significantly from life cycle assessment too. It provides a rubric for evaluating suppliers. Considering that in most industries, 80% of the environmental impact comes from the supply chain, it’s a critical stage you need to manage.

From a marketing and sales perspective, a life cycle assessment is absolute gold. It essentially gives you your unique selling point, helping you define what sets your product or service apart. To resonate with today’s consumers, this is a must-have.

What Are The Phases Of Life Cycle Assessment?

There are four main phases in a life cycle assessment, which happen in conjunction with your product lifecycle.

Think of your product framework in five parts.

  1. Raw material extraction

  2. Manufacturing and processing

  3. Transportation

  4. Usage and retail

  5. Waste disposal

Now you can overlay the four phases of an assessment.

  1. Goal and scope definition

  2. Inventory analysis

  3. Impact assessment

  4. Interpretation

Let’s take it a step further by unpacking what these phases require.

Phase 1: Goal and scope definition

This is where you need to define the product or service you wish to assess. Choose a functional basis for comparison and outline the level of detail you require. Once this is in place, you can set a goal.

Your goal will determine the scope, giving you the parameters you need to define the objective, application, and audience of your assessment. In this step, you ultimately describe the criteria for your analysis. Take your time here. It’s the foundation for a rock-solid LCA.

Phase 2: Inventory Analysis

In this phase, you need to describe the material and energy flows within the product system you’ve chosen to assess. Material and energy flows represent all materials and energy that flow into and out of the system being analyzed. Pay close attention to the interaction with the environment, listing consumer raw materials and emissions every step of the way.

Don’t forget the all-important processes and subsidiary energy that your material flows require. These need to be documented too.

Phase 3: Impact Assessment

Now for the gritty part. You need to perform an impact assessment, classifying resource use and emissions generated throughout the life cycle. You must define the potential impacts, quantifying them under impact categories.

Some of the common impact categories include:

  • Climate change: a measure of greenhouse gas emissions, such as CO₂ and methane. High emissions lead to the greenhouse effect, caused by an increase in the Earth’s absorption of radiation emitted by the sun.

  • Eutrophication: covers excessively high levels of macronutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Too much nutrient enrichment can cause changes in species composition, contributing to high biomass in our ecosystems such as algal blooms.

  • Acidification: a measure of emissions that increase the environment’s acidity, namely hydrogen ion concentration. This throws out the pH balance in our water.

  • Smog formation: emissions that contribute to ground-level smog formation, creating a haze thanks to the reaction of VOC with carbon monoxide under UV light. It can directly affect human health and damage crops.

  • Particulate matter: a measure of matter emissions and precursors to secondary particulates. These are usually from fossil fuel combustion, wood combustion, and dust particles.

  • Ozone depletion: a measurement of air emissions that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, leading to higher levels of ultraviolet rays reaching the Earth’s surface.

Phase 4: Interpretation

Now that you’ve gathered your findings, defined your objectives and outcomes, and quantified your impact, you need to interpret it. Discuss all the results, ranking them in relevance, robustness, data quality, and potential limitations. Once this is complete, you can use this to systematically evaluate any opportunities to reduce or optimize your impact.

Example: Packaging

There are various facets of your business that would benefit from a life cycle assessment. One of the most meaningful places to start is with packaging. Let’s take what we’ve learned and translate it into a life cycle assessment example.

Let’s say your business creates environmentally friendly packing peanuts that are 100% biodegradable. Off the bat, this is a fantastic product that has tons of benefits in its finished form. What to do first? You need to map out the material, define the treatment process, and document the journey from raw material acquisition to the finished packing peanuts.

Then you’ll tackle the life cycle inventory, collecting the data from each touchpoint and modeling it into input-output flows. You can then begin your life cycle impact assessment. Select your impact categories based on your goal and scope and evaluate your findings.

For this example, focusing on climate change and eutrophication may make sense. Perhaps the production of your eco-friendly packing peanut has little impact on CO₂ levels, but when it decomposes in the soil, it pushes the nutrients into an unnatural state. Maybe it’s over-fertilizing, creating excessive levels of macronutrients.

Once you’ve finished this step, you can interpret your findings. Comb through phases 1, 2, and 3, unpacking what each piece of the story means. More often than not, this will highlight the exact stage of your product lifecycle where its impact falls short. In this example, you would then need to focus on the “disposal” factor of your life cycle, reworking the make-up of your packing peanuts to combat eutrophication while keeping the rest of the cycle in balance.

The Environmental Impact Of Packaging

The significance of life cycle assessments and sustainable thinking is essential for packaging. Yes, LCAs are relevant to any product or service, but the environmental impact of most of today's packaging is starting to feel overwhelming.

Despite increased awareness about the impact of poor packaging on our environment, it still seems everywhere. From food products in shops to online deliveries, tech storage, and your daily water bottle, wasteful packaging is still the norm.

According to a recent study, 53 million tons of plastic will exist in our oceans, rivers, and lakes by the year 2030. You guessed it. Packaging is the number one contributor to plastic production, making this a great place to start.

By utilizing a life cycle assessment to evaluate the environmental impact of your packaging, you can make a real difference to the global plastic footprint.

Life Cycle Assessment Software: Top Tools To Utilize

Most life cycle assessment tools have been around since the ‘90s. With sustainability and climate change becoming a hot topic, the market for LCA tools has increased.

Top examples include:

1. GaBi

The next generation LCA software from GaBi delivers a powerful life cycle assessment engine that covers everything from the assessment itself to the costing, reporting, and working environment.

2. Ecochain

Ecochain is an environmental intelligence platform. It’s designed to provide high-level steering information to a company via environmental performance dashboards. It allows you to create footprints for your entire portfolio.

3. SimaPro

SimaPro is a sustainability software that’s built for product designers. The platform provides insights, empowering you to make better decisions and ultimately giving you the tools to reduce your environmental footprint. You can play around with different products, understanding the impact of each material. It’s a great tool to ensure you make an informed decision from the outset.

4. OpenLCA

OpenLCA allows you to model and assess products over their life cycle. You can create a visual, modular framework for your LCA, giving you access to compliant standards, contribution trees, and life cycle costing.

Why CruzFoam Is a Game-changer

With sustainable packaging playing a critical role in the war against plastic, CruzFoam has delivered a product that ticks all the boxes from a life cycle assessment point of view.

CruzFoam reuses materials and existing machinery to protect the carbon value from the suppliers to the actual material and the production. CruzFoam provides an eco-friendly packaging alternative that replaces plastic waste with compostable materials..

CruzFoam’s solution was created with life cycle thinking, understanding the essence of impact at every stage. It’s a real solution to reduce plastic without creating a knock-on effect in another realm of the ecosystem.

Want to transform your packaging footprint? Contact CruzFoam today!

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