A group of researchers from Franklin Associates, the Argonne National Laboratory, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in the US has published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology investigating the life cycle environmental impacts of food packaging and food service ware. The article reviews 71 previously published life cycle assessment (LCA) studies that quantified environmental impacts “to determine whether the material attributes [of] recyclability, recycled content, compostability, and biobased, commonly considered to be environmentally beneficial, correlate with lower net environmental impacts across the full life cycle.” The studies reviewed contained over 5,000 comparisons of food packaging and foodservice ware and took into consideration 13 different LCA impact categories. The authors found that in some cases material attributes are not responsible for environmental benefits, and instead other characteristics related to material choice or mass of the packaging have a higher influence on life cycle impacts.
The study finds that no single attribute should be relied on in determining the design of packaging to minimize environmental impact, and instead public environmental product declarations would help provide more transparency about impacts. The authors also recommend that impacts from across the entire life cycle of packaging products should be considered and that “focusing on specific life cycle metrics shown to be relevant for a particular material and application can help organizations and designers to better inform material selection and reduce environmental impacts.” The increasing attention being placed on single product attributes such as recyclability, being biobased, or having a certain recycled content level, the authors argue, is misguided. They write that “instead, life cycle thinking, consistent application of existing product category rules, and widespread adoption and further development of environmental production declarations should be used as the primary methods when aiming to reduce the environmental impacts.”
While this study focused on investigating environmental impacts across the life cycle of food packaging, previous research has been published on expanding the LCA framework to also consider impacts caused by consumer exposure to chemicals present in food packaging (FPF reported).
Vendries, J. (April 3, 2020). “The Significance of Environmental Attributes as Indicators of the Life Cycle Environmental Impacts of Packaging and Food Service Ware.” Environmental Science and Technology. 54(9).