The pitfalls of life cycle assessment on packaging

Life cycle assessment is not always the best tool for comparing the environmental impact of different products, says a new report, where poor methodology and misinterpretation of the data can lead to bias against some packaging materials. The European Parliament’s attempt to turn LCA into a standard measure of environmental performance will fail both the packaging industry and the environment.

A report released by packaging group Europen, Use of Life Cycle Assessment in Policy Making in the Context of Directive 94/62/EC, explores proposals by MEPs to introduce an LCA-based instrument in the revised Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. The aim is to develop a universal Packaging Environment Indicator (PEI), essentially LCA by another name, says Europen. LCA is already widely – some say indiscriminately – used in Japan to assess the environmental cost of a product (see related story).

The packaging industry, along with the European Commission and Council, are opposed to the development of a blanket PEI, Europen’s Managing Director told edie. “Industry experience is that where LCA has already been used to determine policy, it has resulted in discrimination against certain industries and packaging materials,” says Julian Carroll.

A paper released by Europen shows how Denmark carried out a poor LCA, which in turn led to a poorly thought out policy on packaging, continues Carroll. Germany experienced similar problems, poorly interpreting the results of an LCA when integrating them into policy, says the paper Recent policy developments in Denmark and Germany threaten packaging chain goals of continuous environmental improvement .

If the European Parliament succeeds in establishing PEIs, the outcome will be negative for both industry and the environment, says Carroll. Methods like LCA have too many variables to be reliable as standard tools, and are effectively redundant given the existing laws that oblige companies to minimise and use greener packaging. Forcing materials companies to put PEI information on their packaging would be very expensive and would not guarantee any environment gains, says Carroll.

Environmental performance indicators would be more effective if they were used on whole products, rather than individual packaging, continues Carroll. “You can’t just look at empty packet, you need to assess the function of that packaging as part of a product.” Analysing the input, output and environmental impact of the process of creating a product, including its packaging, is a better way of assessing environmental performance, concludes Carroll.

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