Lifting the lid on LCAs

Businesses that rely on life cycle assessments to substantiate their green claims must commit to full disclosure or risk breeding mistrust, argues David Burrows.

Life cycle assessments are being used with increasing frequency to distinguish between ‘good’ packaging materials and ‘bad’. Reporting on them, however, is incredibly difficult. Ideally, we’d like to unpick the data that sits behind them and the parameters used but that’s impossible if only press releases and summaries are publicly available.

“What is important is that you can see what scope, assumptions and inventory/processes have been considered and the details of the study,” says Alan Campbell, technical director at packaging specialists The LCA Centre in the Netherlands.

This is not always the case. Take this recently published and hotly debated LCA on reusable versus single-use packaging commissioned by the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA). Only a summary is available due to the data being “commercially sensitive”.

This line has long been used as a cloak to make claims without showing the calculations. In Europe, where greenwashing was mentioned in both the green deal and the 2020 circular economy action plan, laws will be tightened to ensure environmental claims are substantiated against a standard methodology (a consultation on these recently closed).

Do we now need to adopt a similar approach in the UK?

Back to that EPPA study, which was conducted and certified respectively by Ramboll and TÜV – reputable organisations in this field. From the summary it appears “fairly balanced” experts told me (although the number of environmental criteria reported were somewhat limited). But once again the problem is the press release, the title for which reads: “Single-use paper-based packaging in quick service restaurants is better for the environment than reusable tableware.”

Not quite. As Simon Gandy from Ricardo, a consultancy, explains, the “real villains are the EPPA, whose press release paints an unfailingly perfect picture. No balanced reporting of the four categories where results for paper were inferior, just gabble from their own staff about how wonderful it is. The commentary and presentation is so biased as to completely undermine the objectivity that they claim underpins the study.”

The data are being used as lobbying and communications tools rather than as part of a progressive debate about the environmental impacts of various approaches to food and drink packaging. It is little wonder food businesses are baffled about what to do.

Indeed, a paper just published in the journal Sustainable Consumption and Production, shows that “reusable containers outperform single-use plastic containers on most measures of environmental impact”. The experts, led by Sarah Greenwood at the University of Sheffield, found that after fewer than five uses the plastic reuse containers won out over single-use in terms of carbon. The steel ones had to be used between 13 and 33 times.

That isn’t the picture conjured by the EPPA’s study: “[…] reusable tableware generated 177% more CO2-e emissions than the paper-based single-use system, consumed 267% more freshwater, produced 132% more fine particulates matter, increased fossil depletion by 238% and terrestrial acidification by 72%.”

The EPPA focused on paper products. But it’s almost impossible to compare the two given that the Sheffield study lists all the data, the calculations, the study’s limitations and the assumptions made. EPPA’s offers a smattering of such information but nowhere near enough to appraise the approach or the results.

LCAs are an incredibly useful tool and will be used with increasing frequency – and not just to compare approaches to packaging. Indeed, what’s in the takeaway container will likely matter far more, from an emissions perspective, than the packaging itself. Ingredients, formulations and meals are already the subject of assessments to determine which present the lowest impacts (and in some cases businesses are using this to nudge consumers towards low carbon choices).

Key battlegrounds are bubbling up. Whether cellular meat is quite all it’s cracked up to be carbon-wise when it’s scaled is one subject of debate. The benefits of certain agricultural systems is another: expect extensive versus intensive approaches and domestic versus imported products to be debated through science journals as well as shouting matches on social media.

Could cases like the EPPA study undermine the whole approach? They certainly don’t encourage an informed debate. Full publication of the study, on the other hand, would – but marketers and industry lobby groups rarely think like that.

The irony here is that businesses and organisations making green claims will also increasingly rely on these assessments to back up the claims they make. “Substantiation is going to be a theme of [environmental claim] enforcement in the UK,” said Katrina Anderson from law firm Osborne Clarke during a recent (short) webinar. “We are expecting to see quite a lot of it in 2021.”

I am also expecting to see a lot more dubious claims passing under the radar in press releases.

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