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Sustainability Metrics for Packaging
The Packaging Resources Action Group (PRAG) was formed in 2008 to help to improve recycling methods and processes for packaged goods. PRAG is a broad based UK group consisting of manufacturers, retailers, local authorities, waste management companies, reprocessors and central government.
The importance of packaging design and specification as a means of reducing environmental impact was recognised by PRAG at an early stage and a Metrics Group was formed to review the tools and methods available to help in the design, development and specification of packaging.
This page summarises part of the work of the Metrics Group, including results from a comparative study of lifecycle assessment (LCA) tools which highlights some of their benefits and limitations.
Lifecycle assessments take account only of the environmental factors. They do not cover economic and social factors so are not measurements of sustainability.
Carbon measurement is currently fashionable but carbon is only one part of a lifecycle assessment. For some products and supply chains, it may not be the most important part and if decisions are taken just on the basis of carbon, there may be unintended impacts in other areas, such as biodiversity or water use.
1 – Sustainability
Sustainable Development was defined in 1987 in the UN report Our Common Future also known as the Brundtland Report . Its primary aim was to improve everyone’s quality of life.
‘Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs ... technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth. The Commission believes that widespread poverty is no longer inevitable. Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations for a better life.....’ (Brundtland report Para. 27)
Packaging is one part of the complex system for delivering products from where they are produced to where they are consumed. Packaging has a positive environmental impact by preventing products becoming waste and a smaller (less than a tenth) negative impact in the materials, energy and water used to make the packaging. Overall packaging has a net positive impact.
2 - The Role Of Packaging
Packaging plays an important role in minimising impacts on the environment, meeting consumers’ needs and keeping costs down.
Designed well, a pack will meet these needs with minimal use of materials , energy and water.
However, it is important to continually challenge the performance of packaging to ensure that the optimum performance is met and environmental impact is reduced as much as possible.
It therefore needs to be measured and monitored.
3 - Measurement tools and methods
PRAG metrics group developed a set of criteria to guide users in the selection of measurement tools.
Tool ‘Ease of Use’ Criteria
- Tool is available ‘Off -the -shelf’
- Analysis can be completed within 30 minutes
- Installation and training provided by the vendor
- User interface is simple and easy to use
- Supports global users
- Tool is cost effective
Tool Measurement Criteria
- Cradle to Grave scope
- End of life phase modelled accurately
- Solid waste modelled accurately
- Details of model methods can be reviewed
- LCA datasets are relevant to global regions
- Datasets are peer reviewed
- Confidence ( or tolerance ) on accuracy is communicated
- The tool provides potential for sensitivity analysis
- Results consistent with full LCA analysis
- Results can be communicated externally ( but not publicly without peer review)
- Bespoke capability to allow adaptation to company / user needs
The PRAG team evaluated 54 tools and methods against these criteria, of which 4 came closest :
None of these provide complete information about the environmental, social, and economic impact of packaging. They therefore should be used within the context of a full evaluation of all aspects of the product/packaging lifecycle.
5 – Data Sources
In carrying out a lifecycle assessment, there are two main sources of data.
Direct measurements of actual operations will be the most robust and reliable. However, it is seldom possible or feasible to get primary data for all parts of a complex supply chain.
Most modelling tools and scorecards include datasets from other studies.
It is important to recognise that these datasets will be average and generic. Some data may be missing completely. This is often the case for the use phase of a product.
If a project is intended for communication publicly there are a number of standards that apply to data collection that need to be complied with e.g. ISO 14044
6 - Analysing the results
In 2008 the metrics group undertook a study to evaluate 3 LCA tools.
Two were full LCA based modelling packages and one Web base LCA derived package. Identical lifecycle data about 3 types of packaging:
- glass jar
- plastic pot
- ‘optimised’ (light weighted) plastic pot was given to each of the tool providers.
Two of the providers’ models used European data, the other US data.
7 - Analysing the results
Notes to the Results
Modelling tool A is used as the reference in this comparison. This does not imply it is more accurate than B
Results from PRAG test study 2009 Full LCA modelling tool B
8- Analysing the results
Notes to the Results
Modelling tool C used US data
9- Analysing the results
Observations from the Study
- Significant variation in results.
- No consistency in the differences –i.e one model was not consistently higher than another.
- Differences in results were sufficient to negate identifying ‘Best In Class’
- Regional data differences were evident and significant.
- Differences between material types were affected by the variation in results.
Conclusions from the Study
The results highlighted the limitations of current tools .
1. Full comparability of results will be achieved only where
- An identical scope has been set for each component
- The data used is accurate and sourced from the same database
- The method of calculation employed is identical
2. Where results of a study are close (within 10%) it is not possible to determine a ‘Best –in- Class’
3. It is not possible to compare studies across different modelling packages .
Once you have selected a tool you will need to stay with that one if you want to monitor improvements.