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Packaging Life Cycle Analysis: What it Tells Us, What It Doesn’t

Packaging Life Cycle Analysis: What it Tells Us, What It Doesn’t

Oct 1st 2021

What is a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)?

As we all know too well, comparing the environmental implications of different choices is very complex. Is it better to eat an organic tomato from Spain or a non-organic tomato grown in your state? Is it better to use recycled plastic manufactured in California or virgin paper manufactured in China? Is it better to buy used furniture or FSC certified wood furniture?

A Life Cycle Analysis aims to more quantitatively and systematically answer these questions. Sphera (one of the two software solutions EcoEnclose uses for our own LCA analysis), defines an LCA as: the systematic analysis of the potential environmental impacts of products or services during their entire life cycle.

When running an LCA, the user inputs a variety of data, including the weight of material, the type of material used, recycled content included, manufacturing processes used, location of manufacture, shipping distances, and end of life scenarios. The software (using proprietary algorithms and assumptions) will then provide different outputs to help the user compare and decide between options. Different LCA software will provide different outputs, but most will provide data such as:

  • Carbon emissions
  • Fossil fuel requirements
  • Water usage
  • Eutrophication

While LCA software typically does not make the claim that one point of output is more important than others, most users of an LCA prioritize carbon emissions above others, given that carbon emissions are the main driver of climate change, the most pressing environmental issue facing the planet today.

Preliminary Versus In-Depth LCAs

We consider a preliminary LCA to be one that allows a user to input their own information, and then uses broad industry data to provide fairly quick results. The more detailed the data is that a user has, the more accurate and relevant the output will be.

An in-depth LCA would be one in which a user gathers significant detail on their materials, products and supply chain, including specific information on where raw materials are sourced, what kind of energy is being used to fuel manufacturing and transport across the supply chain, accurate data on the end of life trends for the product and packaging, etc. These in-depth LCAs are typically conducted by expert consultancies and can be tens of thousands of dollars to execute.

A preliminary LCA is a great starting point for discussion and decision making, and we’ve found that the directional output they put forth is fairly close to the final data outputted by a more in-depth LCA. However, these preliminary LCAs should never be used to provide a concrete public data point about the carbon footprint of a product or packaging solution. Nor should they be used to calculate a company’s carbon emissions for the purposes of offsetting or accounting.

How LCAs Have Helped EcoEnclose

EcoEnclose uses both Trayak and Sphera software to conduct preliminary LCA that help our EcoAllies make more informed decisions about their optimal packaging strategy. However, the LCA is typically one (sometimes small) component of our decision making.

For example, in considering the tradeoffs between a 100% post-consumer waste paper mailer versus a thicker, 70% post-consumer waste paper mailer that is stronger and can ship heavier products with fewer damages, an LCA can help us model the carbon tradeoff between these options.

Some of our EcoAllies have requested that LCAs be conducted to help them explore the tradeoffs between a 100% recycled poly mailer and a compostable PLA mailer. Others have simply been curious to understand the general carbon footprint of their packaging strategy to help them identify steps to reducing that footprint or begin to offset these carbon emissions.

The Limitations of an LCA

While an LCA is an excellent tool that should be used alongside others when making packaging and product development decisions, there are important limitations to consider.

System Boundaries: While an LCA is a life cycle analysis, the analysis has to assume a beginning and end point of the cycle. These are referred to as system boundaries, which determine which unit processes to be included in the LCA study. Defining system boundaries is a bit of a subjective choice, though software and services tend to make some similar assumptions on the boundaries, which are called “cut-off points.” A life cycle often begins at the extraction point of raw materials and concludes with the end of life, including energy generation if relevant. There are also time limitations, such as the lifespan of the impacts of pollutants that are generated, etc. These cutoff points are necessary components of an LCA, but can also hide major drivers of the environmental impact of certain materials.

Assumptions and Algorithms: LCA software is driven by complex algorithms and many assumptions. One of the most challenging aspects of LCA software is that the user has very little insight into the formulas and data driving the results, unless we push and request specifics.

For example, I recently conducted analysis to understand the carbon footprint of virgin paperboard versus recycled paperboard.

To my surprise, Trayak showed that virgin paperboard had a lower carbon footprint than recycled options (a fact that runs counter to almost all other research available on this topic). When talking with Trayak about this discrepancy, they noted that there isn’t enough data on many types of recycled paper substrates. When not enough data is available, the algorithm uses default assumptions that are based on “industry average paper, woodfree, uncoated.” Anytime a default assumption is being used for a recycled paper type, the output isn’t going to be accurate. Trayak was wonderful to work with on this issue and discrepancy and has since given me more detail on the recycled paper types for which they have substrate-specific data and the recycled paper types where the system defaults to a broader average.

Then, I ran a similar analysis using Sphera software and again, found that the virgin paperboard options had a lower carbon footprint than recycled alternatives. After some pushing, I was able to learn the following from them: For recycled paper, a certain amount of external fossil energy is required, therefore causing upstream CO2 emissions. On the contrary, the virign paper production process is of course energy intensive, but the energy is – in modern plants - produced by incinerating the waste wood on-site. So, modern integrated paper plants, do not only produce their own energy, they also export surplus energy. That energy is regarded as CO2-neutral, because only the amount of carbon is released which was fixed before during tree growth. This raises many red flags! This article does a great job describing this in more detail.

This suggests that Sphera software is treating the wood chips as a waste product, and is not concerned with the origins or carbon emissions that were released when the tree was cut down. While this may be a valid assumption, it is a severe limitation of LCA software that these details aren’t made clear when data is first outputted (and that it requires so much pushing and negotiation to get access to this information).

Not factoring in some critical environmental issues: The analytical focus of an LCA and the system boundaries that are in place mean that key issues aren’t factored in. For example, when considering renewable inputs into materials (such as wood, bagasse, corn or sugarcane), the analysis does not factor in the impact of land use conversion (and the resulting impact of land conversion on carbon emissions and biodiversity loss).

For certain inputs, such as corn or sugarcane, this can be a major oversight as the conversion of rainforest and natural prairieland into farmland has had a dramatic and destructive impact on carbon emissions and biodiversity loss.

Additionally, an LCA doesn’t take into account litter and pollution issues. Though plastic pollution is a critical issue facing the planet today, there is no powerful way to quantify this within an LCA just yet.

The output is never the same across the two systems: For us, what was surprising was to see how much results often varied between Sphera and Trayak. Many people we speak with tend to think an LCA is rock solid science, and that the resulting output can be taken as fact. When we first started seeing these drastically different results across the systems, it surprised us. But, it also led us to dig in on the ins and outs of how these algorithms work. Hopefully the above insights help dispel the misconception that LCAs should be taken as gospel.

So What Should a Life Cycle Analysis Be Used For?

We believe a preliminary Life Cycle Analysis (such as one done through self-directed software like Trayak and Sphera) should be considered as one initial data point in the process of evaluating packaging decisions, but not the deciding factor of a decision. In fact, one of our favorite ways to use an LCA is to create a baseline from which to ask questions and identify where we want to research further.

For example, we were recently evaluating the merits of sugarcane-based, recyclable bioplastic. The life cycle analysis output suggested that this type of plastic has a very low (and in some cases, negative) carbon footprint. However, the LCA also showed this to have an extremely high negative impact on eutrophication (producing excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water, that creates destructive algal blooms). This disconnect led us to research the sugarcane production process more thoroughly to better understand the pros and cons of this crop on carbon, land use, ocean and the planet’s health long-term.

We do not believe an LCA is a replacement for a well developed sustainability vision and framework.

At EcoEnclose, our primary vision is on creating a packaging future that is circular and regenerative. We imagine a day when goods are endlessly recycled or reused, and that any virgin materials are made from regenerative resources whose production actually strengthens soils, waterways, habitats, air quality, and local communities.

With this as our north star, we have heavily prioritized recycled content. Through this lens, we use an LCA to help us get smarter and make thoughtful decisions within the boundaries of circularity, but we don’t allow LCA results to push us to forego our vision. For example, an LCA would tell us that a virgin, landfilled poly mailer made overseas has a lower carbon footprint than a 100% recycled paper mailer made in the USA. We don’t let these results, which do not recognize the pitfalls of a linear economy or the massive problem of plastic pollution, derail us from our vision. But we use the results to help us get smarter about creating a future that is circular, regenerative and carbon efficient (and even carbon negative).

Some “Surprising” LCA Results We’ve Seen

The following are a handful of surprising data we’ve seen in some of our own LCA analysis in Trayak and Sphera. Per the perspectives shared above, these insights have not changed our overall sustainability strategy, but they have helped us understand what to research and better understand, and how to best explore and assess new materials and technologies.

Plastic Always Wins

Many people who use an LCA are looking to compare paper versus plastic. Plastic film will almost always win in an LCA, in large part because plastic packaging uses significantly less material to accomplish the same functionality as a paper counterpart. The following is an analysis comparing 1000 6x9 100% recycled poly mailers with 1000 6.5x8.75” 100% recycled paper mailers. These results were generated through Sphera but similar trends are found in Trayak analysis.

These Tools (Trayak and Sphera) Show that Recycled Paper Often Has a Higher Carbon Footprint Than Virgin Options

The following shows the difference between 1 lb of 100% post-consumer paperboard and 1 lb of virgin paperboard. After digging into this surprising result with Trayak, we learned that the assumptions driving the post consumer paperboard are actually tied to a broader paper data set - industry average paper, woodfree, uncoated (which is very different from 100% recycled paperboard). This highlights how the limitations of Trayak’s datasets can inadvertently push users towards the wrong decisions if they are not extensively researched. These results were from Trayak.

Compostable Bioplastic Always Loses

The following is a high level analysis comparing 10 lbs of recycled LDPE versus 10 lbs of virgin LDPE versus 10 lbs of PLA. This analysis assumes that film extrusion was the manufacturing method applied. These results (with recycled LDPE outperforming all, and PLA having a higher carbon footprint than virgin and recycled counterparts) was true across both systems and all plastic manufacturing processes. These results were from Trayak.

WTE and Composting Paper Has a Higher Carbon Footprint Than Landfilling

The following shows a comparison of 1 lb of paper mailers that are recycled versus landfilled versus compared versus converted to energy. Interestingly, landfilling the paper has a lower carbon footprint than energy conversion or composting. These results were from Trayak.

Landfilling Bioplastic Has a Lower Carbon Footprint than Composting

The following shows 10 lbs of PLA mailer that are composted versus landfilled. Interestingly, composting PLA has a higher carbon footprint than landfilling it. These results were from Trayak.