• 14th October 2022

Why We Care About Life Cycle Assessment, and Why You Should Too

It’s no secret that sustainability is a complex multi-layered monster—oops, we mean matter.

Every product (in our case, every piece of packaging) follows a unique journey, passing through various phases that craft its sustainability story.

What is the piece of packaging made of? Does it utilize virgin materials, or are they recycled? What manufacturing process did it undergo, and where? How many truck rides did it go through to get where it is now? Will the end user throw it in a landfill, recycle it, compost it, or upcycle it?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding an object’s overall environmental impact. It requires getting extremely granular—you can’t just simply ask these questions, you have to quantify them, too.

Sure, it sounds daunting, but that’s what we’re here to help you with.

We have systems in place that allow you to assess your products’ current impacts, compare new sustainable packaging options, and uncover and avoid any unintended consequences down the road.

How do we do it? We utilize a trusty method known as the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

What is a Life Cycle Assessment?

Simply put, a Life Cycle Assessment is a method of measuring the environmental impact one object (in our case, one piece of packaging) has on the world around it.

It’s our attempt to understand the whole story, providing us with key metrics and indicators that allow us to evaluate and improve the sustainability of our packaging solutions. A packaging life Cycle Assessment can also highlight potential problem areas to ensure our sustainability efforts are actually producing the intended outcome.

What stages does an LCA consider? The answer is all stages, which we’ve broken down below.

1. Raw Material Extraction
2. Manufacturing Processes
3. Transportation Methods
4. Usage and Retail
5. End-of-Life Operation

In most cases, we call this a cradle-to-grave analysis, as it follows the product from its inception (sourcing of raw materials) to its disposal (landfill, recycling facility, etc.).

In an effort to move towards a circular economy, we also utilize a cradle-to-cradle analysis. This method aims to close the loop—intentionally utilizing reusable and recyclable materials to ensure sustainable packaging solutions remain in use. In other words, the product’s end-of-life becomes its inception, eliminating disposal altogether.

It’s also important to note that the LCA process follows a standardized methodology regulated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It consists of four phases.

  • Goal and Scope Definition: What do we want to analyze, and how deep?
  • Life Cycle Inventory Analysis: This is the data collection phase.
  • Impact Assessment: How far do the impacts reach?
  • Interpretation: This is where we provide the most reliable conclusions and recommendations.

This standardized approach allows us to compare apples to apples—or rather, boxes to boxes.

What do we measure in a Life Cycle Assessment, and how?

Because we’re measuring the environmental impact of each piece of our sustainable packaging, we focus on the following metrics throughout every stage of the product’s lifecycle.

  1. Greenhouse gas emissions
    2. Fossil fuel consumption
    3. Water usage

How do we measure this data, exactly?

We use Compass, a Comparative Packaging Software that organizes emissions data gathered by regional proxies. These proxy emission factors are measures per produce or volume, allowing us to suggest improvements and refine the process as we go.

It’s important to note that reducing the size and weight of the packaging is by far the most effective way to reduce the overall environmental impact, so this is always the first place we start. We can then evaluate material selection, transportation, and manufacturing processes (in that order) to suggest additional improvements.

 Why does it matter?

While it’s true that your overall sustainability goals are macro company-wide goals, it takes micro-level data and analysis to achieve them.

LCAs are crucial in helping you (and, in turn, us) evaluate and reduce your overall environmental impact. If you’ve set carbon, water, and energy consumption targets—the quantifiable, granular data gathered in our LCAs can help you achieve said targets.

We can perform a packaging life cycle assessment on several unique options to compare the possibilities. For one of our clients, we used LCAs to compare their original packaging to two new options, lending the following compelling results.

Option 1

  • 12% reduction in GHG emissions
  • 18% reduction in fossil fuel consumption
  • 11% reduction in water usage

 Option 2

  • 45% reduction in GHG emissions
  • 52% reduction in fossil fuel consumption
  • 20% reduction in water usage

In the sustainable packaging space, it’s common to hear people “talk the talk” instead of seeing them “walk the walk.” Having these numbers on paper allows you to legitimize your sustainability claims, work towards your sustainability goals, and uncover even more opportunities for improvement down the road.

Not to mention, these metrics can be transformed into relatable messaging about your brand’s commitment to sustainability. For example, it feels great to say that your new sustainable packaging saves 300 acres of forests and 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water. It feels even better having the data to prove it.