Benchmark existing designs

Once sustainability goals have been set, the sustainability indicators of one or more existing designs should be examined. Benchmarking existing designs will establish a baseline and serve as a starting point from which progress can be achieved.

Before progress towards a more sustainable design can be measured, the sustainability indicators of one or more established designs should be assessed. The primary approach to assessing the sustainability of packaging is through life cycle analysis (LCA), either with the use of a streamlined LCA tool or by conducting a full LCA. LCAs are used to provide a full view of impacts over an entire cradle-to-grave life cycle, which helps prevent the introduction of unintended trade-offs from one life cycle phase to another. When using LCAs to assess packaging, keep in mind that:

There’s a significant difference between streamlined LCA tools and full LCAs:

Streamlined LCA tools are quick, economical, and easy to use, but are limited in flexibility and may not provide as much information as full LCAs. Full LCAs, however, are costly and time-consuming. For benchmarking and directional guidance, streamlined LCA tools often suffice, but for in-depth analyses and support of marketing claims, full LCAs are necessary.

Data is important

Data availability, quality, and consistency are often limiting factors of LCA studies. Inputs to LCA studies are usually measurements of packaging attributes such as material amounts, compositions, and conversion processes, and its important to recognize that the results of any LCA study will be no better than the quality of the input data. The estimates of sustainability indicators that are the output of LCAs are also limited by the data that relates the packaging attributes to estimates of sustainability indicators. Full LCAs often leverage primary data that is measured specifically for the study, while streamlined LCA tools rely on secondary data derived from industry averages.

The functional unit should be chosen wisely

The functional unit is the benefit or set of benefits against which impacts are assessed. Choosing the most appropriate functional unit allows a true apples-to-apples comparison to be made when evaluating the impacts of various design options. For a packaging system, the functional unit can range from a simple definition, such as containing 12oz. of product, to a complex definition that includes multiple criteria such as capacity, protection, marketability, cost, and more. Full LCAs are capable of
using complex functional units, while streamlined LCA tools tend to only use functional units comprising a single benefit.

You should consider the range of analysis

Because changes in one package often affect the other packages in the packaging system, an ideal assessment should include the complete packaging system. This helps prevent the introduction of unintended trade- offs from one part of the packaging system to another.

LCAs can’t measure everything

There may be certain sustainability indicators that are important to your company but cannot be measured using LCA methods. Social impacts, for example, are rarely included in LCA studies. Economic considerations also tend to fall outside of the scope of LCAs. Data may also simply not be available to estimate certain environmental impacts. Keep in mind that LCAs are extremely useful, but they don’t tell us every aspect of the sustainability of a package or packaging system.