Life Cycle Assessment Part 1: Revealing more than meets the eye

We’ve all heard the ‘tip of the iceberg’ analogy for explaining how there is more to a given subject than meets the eye. A Sustainability Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can help reveal environmental impacts, both positive and negative, of a package or label beyond its primary sustainable traits.  In fact, an LCA can be run for nearly any manufactured product, but we’ll stick to labels & packaging since that’s our business.  In this first of posts on Life Cycle Assessment, we’ll explore the basics of an LCA and what information can be gleaned from the exercise.

LCA takes five primary elements or processes in the life of a label or package into account, and provides a framework for some questions you can ask:

  • Raw Materials
  • Raw Material Transport
  • Production
  • Distribution
  • End of Life

Raw Materials considers raw components of a product.  Are any of the materials renewable? Does the extraction of the material cause excessive emissions or endanger water tables or ecosystems?

Raw Material Transport examines the modes of transport for the materials.  Is the raw material required located a great distance from the plant that will be using it?  Does the material take up a great deal of space in shipping, requiring more trips over time than alternative materials?

Production looks at the manufacturing and fabrication. Does the production of the product use a lot of energy or water?  Are there harmful byproducts in the production process?

Distribution considers how the finished product will get to the customer. It factors in many of the same variables as Raw Materials Transport.

Finally, End of Life looks at disposition of the product. Is it recyclable?  Reusable?

To illustrate, let’s consider the example of a flexible package that is composed of 100% recyclable materials. That this package can be recycled and not end up in a landfill is the primary beneficial trait of the package.  But an LCA can reveal benefits not so obvious.  For example, flexible packaging generally takes less water to manufacture than rigid packaging designed for the same purpose (Production).

From a distribution perspective, finished flexible packaging takes up MUCH less space in transport than rigid packaging.  Extrapolating out over a given time, the fuel savings of shipping flexible packages compared to the same quantity of rigid packages will be substantial. We’re using less fuel, which in and of itself is a good thing, but by doing so we’re also reducing the amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Another ‘hidden’ benefit. See our post linked here. Save Green with Flexible Packaging.

All the above information has been presented in very general terms.  A formal LCA will provide much more specific feedback and give detail to material and packaging comparisons so better decisions can be made.

We will explore the process of conducting a formal LCA in the next installment of the series.

Would you like to take a closer look at life cycle assessments for your own packaging and/or labeling strategy?  AWT and our supplier partners can help you make more informed decisions regarding sustainable options for your program.

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