Different types of packaging for the same beverage can have very different impacts on the environment. As a sustainability professional in the beverage industry, I’ve seen the impact our choices can have on the environment. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) provides valuable insights to help make sustainable choices when evaluating the ecological impacts of beverage packaging.
Each type of packaging has its own story of production, usage, and disposal, and each has a unique environmental footprint. A pivotal tool to help uncover these narratives is the LCA, which describes the environmental and other impacts at every step in making, using, and recycling a product. Understanding the story presented by LCA is crucial to making informed choices.
Understanding the use of LCA can help every consumer can make a positive impact. Why are some materials better for the environment than others, and how can choosing the right beverage help? Additionally, we will review some of the complexities of recycling and how our efforts as consumers in sorting and recycling can contribute to an ecological balance. We will also look into ways to encourage manufacturers and retailers to offer more sustainable packaging options.
Does Your Purchase Make A Difference?
Yes, our choices in the beverage aisle have an impact beyond just satisfying your thirst. Looking beneath the surface is critical to making environmentally responsible choices. This is what an LCA enables us to do with beverage packaging. Let’s delve deeper into how LCA illuminates the environmental journey of each package, from its inception to the end of life.
LCA is a process that evaluates the environmental impacts of a product throughout its life cycle. This process typically results in scores indicating the bottle’s effect in various aspects of its impact on nature, including greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and water consumption. The LCA can examine different stages of the life cycle, including the impacts of raw material extraction (e.g., petroleum for plastic), manufacturing (energy-intensive processes to create the bottle), distribution (fuel used for transportation), usage (consumer use patterns), and end-of-life handling (recycling or landfill).
For instance, an LCA of a plastic beverage bottle might reveal significant energy use and greenhouse gas emissions during the material extraction and manufacturing phases due to the processing of petroleum-based plastics. The transportation phase might score lower on environmental impact due to the lightweight nature of plastic, reducing fuel consumption during shipping. However, the end-of-life phase could present considerable environmental challenges if the bottle is not recycled, as plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills and can contribute to ocean pollution.
Dig Into LCA Details
The scope of an LCA can vary. A narrower view might focus only on the carbon footprint of a specific phase in the life of a bottle, such as manufacturing. A broader scope could analyze the entire life cycle and encompass a more comprehensive set of environmental impacts, such as water usage, air pollution, and ecosystem disruption. By providing a detailed environmental scorecard, LCA helps manufacturers, consumers, and policymakers understand the total environmental impact of a product.
Consider the LCA of a PET beverage package. It begins with the extraction of raw materials. Here, we must consider the resources needed to create the packaging, whether plastic, glass, metal, or paper. The energy consumption, water usage, and emissions during this phase set the stage for the product’s environmental impact.
Or in the case of PET bottles, where a significant portion — nearly 84% — of their environmental impact is attributed to the production of the packaging, we can see that the importance of recycling and using recycled materials to reduce environmental impact.
The manufacturing stage involves production, design, and processing. A recent study evaluated the greenhouse gas emissions of different packaging materials and found that each has a unique environmental impact due to its manufacturing process. Among the materials studied, HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) is the most efficient, with a comparatively lower carbon footprint. This is primarily because its production involves a straightforward polymerization of ethylene.
On the other hand, PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) increases greenhouse gas emissions by 37% compared to HDPE because PET involves a more complex production process based on the polymerization of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Aluminum packaging has a significantly higher environmental impact, showing a 96% increase in emissions over HDPE due to the energy-intensive extraction and processing of aluminum from bauxite. Glass, which requires extreme heat during production, produces a 75% increase in emissions compared to HDPE. These different emissions levels show how packaging makers can minimize the overall carbon footprint by making careful decisions.
Applying LCA Findings To Make Better Packaging
Design choices beyond which material to use also play an essential role. For instance, lightweighting — using less — of the materials may contribute to savings later in the lifecycle, such as by reducing transportation emissions. Recycled materials can lower the demand for virgin resources and energy requirements. This is shown in a recent LCA of PET bottles, which showed a substantial environmental benefit from producing bottles from recycled bottles, reducing environmental impact by 31%.
Distribution is another critical phase. The environmental cost of transporting beverages is influenced by the weight and volume of the packaging and the distance it must travel to the store. Efficient designs that maximize space and minimize weight can significantly reduce carbon footprints.
Consumer use, often overlooked, is also part of the LCA process. How we handle beverage packaging at the end of its life, by recycling, reusing, or landfilling, plays a crucial role in determining the sustainability of packaging. As consumers, we must be aware of these impacts and make informed decisions. When we choose packaging that is easy to recycle or reuse and actively participate in recycling, we can reduce the environmental impact of our products.
Making Purchase Decisions Count
As consumers, we can drive change by advocating for sustainable packaging options from manufacturers and retailers to combat climate change, air pollution, and resource waste. There are a few steps you can take:
- Continue learning about LCA concepts, including how it evaluates the environmental impacts of a product from production to disposal. Here are some resources: Ecochain and GreenStory.
- Read product labels and packaging. Many companies now include information about the sustainability of their packaging or products. Look for labels or certifications indicating a product’s environmental impact. Here are some resources: Earth911, Brightly, and Ecolabel Index.
- Research brands’ sustainability practices. Visit company websites to learn about their commitment to sustainability and how they apply LCA in their production processes. Companies often publish sustainability reports that detail their environmental impact.
- Choose products with lower environmental impact. Use the knowledge gained from LCA to make informed purchasing decisions.
- Practice and promote recycling. Opt for products with minimal packaging or packaging made from recycled materials and recycle.
These steps can positively impact the environment and contribute to a more sustainable future.
Understanding Life Cycle Assessment in packaging is about acknowledging the environmental impact of our choices and identifying opportunities for innovation and sustainability. Each life cycle stage presents a chance to make a positive difference. As consumers, our choices can encourage manufacturers and retailers to adopt more eco-friendly packaging. As we move forward, let us remember that our packaging is not just a container for a beverage – it’s telling a story of our commitment to the planet.
About the Author
Erik Throndsen has over twenty years of beverage industry experience in strategic planning, product development, and sustainability. Passionate about environmental stewardship, he is excited to share his skills and knowledge to foster a more sustainable future.