Packaging Is The Bad Guy: Myth Or Not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: the impact of packaging.

By Laura Golsteijn, technical analyst at PRé Sustainability

The most important goal of packaging is to protect and preserve products. Regularly, however, packaging is also used for labeling and transport purposes. For consumers, packaging material is one of the most eye-catching aspects of a product. In terms of environmental impact, packaging is often perceived as being one of the bad guys. For some products, therefore, the focus on packaging is so strong that many studies have been done on the environmental impact of just the packaging.

Packaging Designs Are Constantly Changing

Since the early days of life cycle assessment, numerous studies have been done to assess the impact of different types of packaging materials and designs. The packaging industry is continuously reinventing itself with the insights from those studies. An example can be found in the movement towards more lightweight packaging. This can either mean the material is replaced by a lighter alternative (think of wine in pouches rather than glass bottles), or that the amount of material is reduced (for instance in the case of plastic water bottles). The advantage of lightweight packaging is the reduction in emissions from transport.

…And So Are Products

Other trends in packaging include the use of recycled material, which my colleague Marisa will tell you about next month, or the manufacture of concentrates (such as liquid detergents and other care products). Concentrated products contain less water, which does not only lead to a significant reduction in packaging material and accompanying waste, but also reduces transport impacts.

The UNEP SETAC Life Cycle Initiative concluded that there are few, if any, generalities about what makes a package environmentally preferable in terms of materials or design attributes. Therefore, it is recommended to use an objective life cycle assessment to compare different packaging styles. The optimal choice will depend on characteristics such as the raw materials chosen, the product being packed, and the accompanying supply chain.

Packaging Is The Bad Guy: Myth Or Not?

Status: busted.

Different packaging styles can all have their own benefits and downsides, which makes it important to watch out for burden shifting. The packaging industry is very responsive to new insights and developments.

In any case, the main goal of packaging should still be protection and preservation. The choice for a different material or design should not have a negative influence on that. If a product’s shelf life is reduced because the packaging is easily damaged, the environmental impact of producing a new product may ultimately be higher than if you just provide sturdy packaging. Of course, you can also consider making packaging from recycled materials. Is recycling always a good option, though? Marisa will help clear the issue in the next Mythbuster item.

Uncover More Sustainability Myths

This is the fifth part of our Sustainability Mythbusters series. See other episodes:

It’s easy to use ‘common sense’ and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, drop me an e-mail or contact the PRé consultancy team.

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