Life Cycle Analysis and Sustainable Design Strategies

October 23, 2010

Life Cycle Analysis and Sustainable Design Strategies

by Eric Hartman, Product Ventures VP Technologies and Commercialization 

Defining Real Sustainability

I don’t know about everyone else, but speaking strictly for myself, “I’m tired of sustainability”. I’m tired of everyone jumping on the bandwagon and saying “now that we use a little recycled material in our packaging” or “now that our packaging is made from materials that you can recycle”, we are a sustainable company. There are also quite a few companies, I think, who misrepresent what sustainability is and as a result consumers are confused and disconnected with the real reasons a company should embrace sustainability. I also believe that there are still a lot of companies that don’t really know what sustainability is, how to understand it or how to present it to their customers.

I’m also tired of companies that suddenly seem to wake up to the realities of the environmental impact that their products have and make a big deal of the good things that they are now doing for the environment. These same actions are what they should have been doing in the first place to insure that their business model was a sustainable one.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t say all companies have fallen into this trap, but there are enough out there that the sense of confusion around sustainability, is widespread. So let’s clarify what sustainability really is and what it should mean to those of us in Packaging Design.

Using a somewhat complex definition, sustainability is the commonsense notion that long-term prosperity and ecological health not only go together, they depend on one another. Sustainability means long-term cultural, ecologic and economic health and vitality. Or put another way, sustainability is about actions which are ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just and humane.

Since the 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this has resulted in the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development, that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is usually noted that this requires the reconciliation of environmental, social and economic demands - the “three pillars” of sustainability. This view has been expressed as an illustration using three overlapping ellipses indicating that the three pillars of sustainability are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually reinforcing.

A universally-accepted definition of sustainability is elusive though because it is expected to achieve many things. On the one hand it needs to be factual and scientific, a clear statement of a specific “destination”. The simple definition “sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco- systems”, though vague, conveys the idea of sustainability having quantifiable limits. But sustainability is also a call to action, a task in progress or “journey” and therefore a political process, so some definitions set out common goals and values. The Earth Charter speaks of “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”

To make things more complicated, the word sustainability is applied not only to human sustainability on Earth, but to many situations and contexts over many scales of space and time, from small local ones to the global balance of production and consumption. It can also refer to a future intention: “sustainable agriculture” is not necessarily a current situation but a goal for the future, a prediction. For all these reasons sustainability is perceived, at one extreme, as nothing more than a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance. However, it can also be used as an important but unfocused concept like “liberty” or “justice” and has been described as a “dialogue of values that defies consensual definition”.

For those of us that focus on Packaging Design, I think that it’s appropriate to simplify our definition to something that we can clearly understand, embrace and translate to what we all do: Sustainability is about knowing where the materials you use in your product or package come from, the implications of processing and manufacturing to turn them into viable products or packages, and understanding what happens to them at the end of their life. Clear, Simple, Understandable?

Sustainable Choices

Once you begin the development of a new product or package, how do you know that the choices you make will be sustainable? Do you base your selection of materials on advertisements that you see in trade journals? Do you investigate on your own to see what you can determine from supplier literature and data sheets? Do you search for information on new or existing materials or base your choices on past experience? Where do you get the right information to make sustainable choices?

Are there tools that you can use to educate yourself about the choices that you must make to help set your development efforts on a sustainable course? Or are you dependent only on using the information that others provide you and appears to be readily available, although sometimes conflicting, from a variety of sources?

Before we look for specific tools to help us make sustainable product and packaging choices, first and foremost we need to follow some simple rules. By now many of you are familiar with the mantra of development for sustainable packaging.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

  1. Reduce - Reduce the amount of material that you use for a package. If you don’t need it, don’t use it. If you don’t use it in the first place, you won’t have to wonder what to do with it at the end of its useful life.
  2. Reuse - Reuse materials or design your packaging so that it can be reused or repurposed so that it will live on after its original purpose is fulfilled.
  3. Recycle - Recycle the materials that you use for your packaging so that they continue to have an intrinsic value, or use recycled materials in your product so that the energy used to produce them may be less than if virgin materials were used, also helping to limit the amount of virgin raw materials that have to go into a product

Once we understand that the rules exist and could be termed “a common sense approach” to Package Design, we can seek tools to aid us in the development of our projects.

One of the most important tools in the developer’s arsenal to aid in the creation of sustainable products and packaging is the tool of Life Cycle Assessment.

Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment is a specific method for systematically identifying, quantifying and assessing inputs and outputs (i.e. sources of environmental impact) throughout a product’s lifecycle. It is one of a range of tools that support life cycle management, but is not a prerequisite for life cycle management.

Life cycle management is about minimizing environmental burdens throughout the life cycle of a product or service. The lifecycle includes all activities that go into making, using and disposing of a product.

The most important applications of Life Cycle Assessment are the analysis of the contribution of the all of the life cycle stages to the overall environmental burden for a product or package, usually with the aim to prioritize improvements on products or processes, and to provide for a comparison between products for purposes of internal or external communications.

Sometimes an LCA will give strange or unexpected results, but just because an LCA does not provide the results you expect, it doesn’t mean that the results should be discarded or that the organization should disqualify the usefulness of LCA as a tool for assessing sustainability of packaging designs.

There are a few critical success factors for LCA implementation: there needs to be a clear description of the reason for performing the LCA, and there needs to be a clear definition of the way the results of the LCA are to be communicated both internally and externally.

An LCA study consists of several steps: Defining the goal and scope of the study; Modeling the product life cycle with all the environmental inflows and outflows and collecting data related to all of the flows. (This data collection effort is usually referred to as the life cycle inventory (LCI) stage); Understanding the environmental relevance of all the inflows and outflows; this is referred to as the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) phase; Finally interpreting the results of the study.

There are a number of suppliers who provide software and consulting for life cycle assessment. Whether you want to perform the LCA in house with internal resources or whether you would like to turn the project over to an outside contractor who specializes in conducting life cycle assessments there are a number of paths open for the package designer to pursue. In terms of the scope of the software packages that exist, there are some that are more targeted at helping to build sustainability into the design phase of packaging development, such as the Sustainable Minds product of the SPC’s Compass program. I tend to call these LCA “lite” products since the scope and scale of their capabilities is somewhat limited when compared to the more comprehensive LCA products Like SimaPro and GaBi.

That’s not to say that the “lite” products are not of value, in fact they are very valuable and quite a bit simpler to use than the more comprehensive programs., And they do provide incredible insight for the designer or developer in the early stages of a project when they want to quickly understand the sustainability implications of the material choices that they make for a package.

Sustainability considerations are also being integrated into CAD packages to assist designers and engineers in better designing with sustainability in mind. The more comprehensive LCA products can help to shed light on considerations throughout the entire lifecycle of products and packages by providing details on the implication of decisions made about numerous materials and processes and allow for the modeling of many alternative scenarios.

LCA Assists the Package Designer

Beginning with sourcing or raw material extraction, the LCA can assist the package designer understanding the implications of deriving their materials from different locales or selecting alternative raw materials, scenarios can be built which compare the environmental impacts of multiple materials that require the use of alternative production processes to obtain.

Once the material sourcing decision is complete the LCA will help the designer understand the implications of turning those materials into usable packaging, possibly through different conversion processes or with differently sourced origins of power. In this stage the designer can begin to understand what goes into turning the raw materials into usable products.

When the material conversion process is complete the LCA will assist the designer in understanding what it takes to manufacture or package their product. Various scenarios can be modeled depending on how and where the product is filled.

LCAs also can take into account the implications of using the product and help to develop an understanding of the impact that it will have on the environment. Maybe the use phase burden will require a rethought of the actual function of the product and how it is used to improve its environmental footprint.

A key benefit of the comprehensive LCA programs is the ability to effectively model the end of life scenarios for products and materials and understand the implications of disposal or recycling on the packaging materials selected. End of life scenarios for different materials may vary from country to country. It’s important for the designer to be able to understand and build in considerations for how the packaging that they develop will be disposed of in the countries where it will be used.

Finally the LCA allows for the designer to develop an understanding of the effects of transportation of the materials, whether in raw or finished form, throughout the package lifecycle and the burdens that their transport and handling place on the environment. This can help to build a case for sourcing materials locally or selecting alternative materials, even though they may be of higher cost, verses importing the material of choice from overseas.

It is interesting that LCA’s do not always produce the results that you anticipate, in fact quite often they give results that make one question either the data input to the LCA or the interpretation of the results of a study.

All of us have some preconceived notions about what materials are “good” and what ones are “bad”, but when considering the development of Sustainable products and packaging, it’s important not to let our preconceived notions cloud our judgment or inhibit us from performing our due diligence to insure that we make the right material and process choices in the course of our projects.

LCA, is not however the only tool that you should use and the only thing that you should consider when looking at the sustainability of the products or packaging you create. Remember that LCA’s require you to model reality, and as with most models, they are only a representation which can and usually does contain some distortions of that reality.

The results of LCAs should not be treated as absolutes but should rather be used for guidance in selecting the most sustainable materials or improving the overall sustainability of a process. LCA’s should be used like all good tools, as only one item in the toolbox to help the developer make an informed decision on the best path to pursue for sustainable development.

Sustainable Design Strategies

In addition to using tools like Life Cycle Assessment to help you make informed decisions about material and process choices that you make in your design and development efforts, there are a number of Design Strategies that can be embraced to insure that the products and Packaging you develop are truly sustainable.

As I mentioned earlier, minimize material use and optimize the use of resources required for the package, practice source reduction – focus on getting more from less. If possible, avoid materials that damage human and ecological health and know the chemistry of your package. Use thoroughly tested materials reducing the uncertainty of materials that may eventually end up in the environment.

Make use of recycled content when possible, reduce the reliance on diminishing natural resources and select materials which are responsibly sourced from sustainably managed resources. If possible, select materials that have high recycling rates and design the package for recycling. Consider the colorants and additives used and insure that they do not impact recyclability. Clearly communicate that recycling stream intended for the pack. Ensure that add ons, (labels, printing inks) work with the recycling technology. Keep in mind that while almost all polymers are recyclable, very few actually are.

If possible integrate features which aid inspection and quality control. Design components which are easily assembled. Design to minimize manufacturing waste. Minimize the number of production methods, steps and operations required to produce or handle a package. Minimize the number of components and materials in a package so that factory waste streams are reduced.

Select the appropriate material to be compatible with the anticipated distribution stream. Reduce or optimize package weight, eliminate unnecessary materials and optimize packaging footprint so that it packs out efficiently and eliminates shipping air.

Consider the application of the package and whether or not reuse is an option, if so design the packaging for reuse. Build in features which increase users may desire to retain and reuse package. Build in durability while balancing disposal needs and do not overdesign the package even if it will be reused. Remember that even a reusable package will eventually be disposed of, think about this when selecting materials and be concerned with how the material will be recovered .

Provide for ease of disassembly with the end of life for your package. Design for recycling or downcycling. Design products considering Resource Recovery or effective end of life solutions. As a last resort insure that the conversion of your package in a waste to energy stream will not yield toxic residuals. Use the least amount of energy possible to create the package initially understanding that the conversion process is not 100% effective.

So there you have it, a clarification of what sustainability is and isn’t, an endorsement for the use of Life cycle analysis as a valuable tool in the designers arsenal to assist in the development of sustainable packaging, a warning that while LCA is a valuable tool, it should not be the only tool that the designer uses in his pursuit of sustainability and a few considerations to assist in the design of Sustainable packaging.

So, now that you’ve finished reading all of this and have a mindful of things to consider, I’d like to leave you with a final thought: Sustainability is not just the selection of “green” materials or processes. It is a common sense systematic approach to insuring that the world we leave behind will not have suffered for our passing through.......


Eric Hartman is the Director of Packaging Technologies and Commercialization for Product Ventures.
Contact Eric at 203.319.1119 or 

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