Unpacking the problem with life cycle analyses

Companies are desperate to understand which packaging materials have the lowest environmental impact, but are life cycle analyses being manipulated and misused to present skewed results? By David Burrows

Huhtamaki’s new life cycle analysis (LCA) research comparing different types of cups makes some pretty bold claims. This one in particular stands out: “In most everyday scenarios, a paper cup has the lowest carbon footprint and is always a hygienic choice,” the packaging manufacturer said in its press release.

However, read the study, which is available here (though not in full due to “business confidential data”), and it quickly becomes clear that this is not exactly the case. In fact, the study actually shows the clear benefits of reusable plastic cups.

WHAT DID THEY DO?

Huhtamaki enlisted the help of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to assess different cups in two different scenarios. There was a sit-in situation: this compared some single-use paper cups with ceramic ones. And there was a take-away scenario: this pitted the paper cups against reusable ones made from either plastic or steel.

In all, life cycle analyses – which cover the environmental impact of products from cradle to grave – were conducted on six different cups: (1) a paper cup with standard polyethylene (PE) coating; (2) a paper cup with plant-based PE coating; (3) a compostable paper cup (certified to EN13432); (4) a ceramic cup used in a café; (5) a reusable cup for takeaway made from plastic; and (6) a reusable cup for takeaway made from steel.

 WHAT DID THEY FIND?

In the café scenario, they concluded that the ceramic cups would need to be used 350 times before a so-called “breakeven point” – which is when they become more carbon-efficient than the paper ones. If the cups aren’t washed efficiently, the carbon tipping point is even higher. However, if 80% of the paper cups are recycled the paper cups “are always the better option”, the report states; and there’s a graph on page 4 showing that even at 500 uses a ceramic cup’s footprint is way above a paper cup. Even after 1,000 uses the breakeven point isn’t breached. The plant-based PE cup performs even better.

There are a few points to make here.

The first is that if single-use paper cups are recycled their carbon footprint falls dramatically. For example, the “regular” PE-coated cup had a footprint of 8.1g CO2eq based on European averages that 30% of materials are landfilled, 34% are incinerated and 36% are recycled. However, if recycling is 100% then this falls by 53% to 3.8g CO2eq. For the plant-based PE cup it falls even further – by 65% to 2.8g CO2eq. These figures show that “by recycling we really are doing the right thing”, says Richard Ali, sustainability director for Huhtamaki Foodservice Europe-Asia-Oceania.

But this brings us to the second point: cup recycling in the UK, for example, is nowhere near 100%. Neither is it anywhere near the 80% used to beat the ceramic cups (80% actually exceeds the European Union’s 2030 recycling target for packaging of 70%). We are not even close to the 36% rate. In fact, in the UK the recycling rate for single-use cups currently stands at 4%, and is expected to rise to 8% by the end of this year (although there are much higher rates being posted in “closed environments” such as airports).

What we have to remember, however, is that an LCA reflects the implications of the system being studied – and this could be the status quo or an alternative scenario. As Adrian Higson from bioeconomy consultants NNFCC, puts it: “Given that the current system is largely ineffective for recycling packaging, we should first ask what are we trying to achieve and what would a good system look like. We can then probe the impact of different packaging solutions using LCA.”

Of course, the more scenarios there are, the more debatable the results become. Which brings us to the final point. Huhtamaki’s study fails to detail some of the assumptions it makes when comparing the ceramic cup with paper ones. Washing accounts for 90% of the life cycle emissions of the ceramic cup, but there are so many variables: what type of dishwasher was used? Was it loaded correctly? Was renewable energy used to power it? How long does a ceramic cup last in reality? And so on.

In an email, Huhtamaki’s Ali confirmed some of these assumptions, including the loading of the dishwasher. However, the energy supply for dishwashing used the current European average for supply. In time, this could (and indeed must) be further decarbonised and so bringing that breakeven point lower and lower. This is a critical point to make for businesses wanting to future-proof their decisions. LCAs are often based on the here and now, ignoring the major trends the world is in the midst of, such as continued grid decarbonisation and decarbonisation of transport – both of which have holistic implications on supply chains. So, don’t throw the ceramic cups out with the dishwater just yet.

WHAT ABOUT REUSABLE CUPS?

This is actually where Huhtamaki’s claims in support of single-use paper cups really start to unravel. Paper cups with plastic lids were compared with reusable cups made from plastic or steel. The latter needed to be used 130 times to create fewer CO2 emissions than its single-use cousin. However, the plastic reusable only had to be used 20 times to outperform the paper one. In other words, if you work five days a week and have coffee in a reusable cup every morning, within a month you are saving carbon compared to single-use – around 21gCO2e, which is the footprint of a paper cup with a lid (note the packaging only represents 9% of a latte’s footprint, so reusables aren’t a reason to increase your coffee consumption). Even if the recycling rate is 80% and a plant-based PE cup is used, the tipping point only extends to 32 times.

Can we therefore say that paper cups are the best option? Far from it: this LCA actually demonstrates the considerable environmental benefits of encouraging a switch to reusable cups.

SHOULD WE BAN SINGLE-USE CUPS THEN?

Not necessarily. There are, as ever, commercial realities to consider. Look at what happened to Boston Tea Party when it did just that: sales of takeaway drinks slumped by 25%.

However, recent research by Eunomia in Bristol suggests that some businesses have saved tens of thousands of pounds by switching to reusables. A charge on single-use cups can often be a safer first step, with an investigation by Footprint recently revealing that, in the UK Houses of Parliament, a 25p surcharge on all hot drinks to encourage customers to instead use a china mug or a reusable “keep cup” has resulted in a reduction in monthly sales of hot drinks in single-use disposable cups from 58,000 to 15,000 with no negative impact on overall sales.

Let’s not forget, too, that with recycling rates of one in 25 cups and consumption actually rising (to 3 billion in 2018), the UK will have to do something to meet new EU laws. As part of the EU Single Use Plastics Directive, which the UK is likely to have to implement, member states must “achieve an ambitious and sustained reduction” in the consumption of single-use plastic cups.

IT’S ALL VERY CONFUSING

Foodservice businesses are under immense pressure to ditch plastic, switch materials and improve their recycling rates. LCAs can be a fantastic tool to help them decide which way to jump, considering the whole-life environmental impacts of the materials. However, the quality and reliability of the output depends on the competence and good intentions of the person or organisation performing it.

“Done well, an LCA can help guide our decisions as businesses and consumers to more sustainable options,” explains Michael Lenaghan, an environmental policy advisor at Zero Waste Scotland. “At the same time, it can be misused or manipulated to produce a desired outcome for a vested interest, which is often difficult to identify without expertise and investigation. A common-sense review of assumptions used, as well as the presence of a peer review, can be helpful in assessing the validity of a suspect LCA finding.”

Identifying when to stick with plastic, when to replace it with something else and when to avoid single-use packaging altogether is a major challenge. Susan Freinkel puts it rather eloquently in her book, Plastic: A toxic love story, when she says: “Often when we find ourselves caught in a relationship that makes us feel bad or guilty, we want to be rid of it as quickly as possible. Yet in the rush for a quick divorce, we may just find ourselves falling into a rebound romance that is no healthier than the one we just left.” Bear that in mind the next time you read an LCA.

 

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