The Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA) recently released a new life cycle assessment (LCA) of packaging for eight common produce commodities, which shows neither corrugated containers nor reusable plastic containers (RPC) have an advantage in all environmental impact categories. This finding is a result of an exhaustive and scientific, third-party peer-reviewed study conducted by Quantis, a leading independent sustainability consulting group.
A life cycle assessment is a standardized, scientific tool to assess environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life, from cradle to grave or raw material extraction to end-of-life. LCAs are used to inform public policy; assist in research and development; and aid in decisions surrounding waste management, biofuels and renewable energy.
The corrugated industry’s LCA compares the environmental impact corrugated boxes and RPCs from raw materials extraction to end-of-life for apples, carrots, grapes, head lettuce, oranges, onions, tomatoes and strawberries. The LCA examined the effects of each system on global warming potential (greenhouse gas emissions), eutrophication, acidification, non-
renewable energy, ozone depletion, respiratory effects, smog formation, freshwater consumption and solid waste.
The assessment shows that the two container systems have different environmental impacts that create value-based trade-offs. To minimize the footprint of delivering products to market, users need to identify the impact categories that are important to them and select the best system accordingly; performance in each environmental category depends on what’s being shipped, where it’s being shipped and other variables.
Corrugated manufacturers continually work to increase use of biofuels and decrease use of fossil fuels for energy, and to improve energy efficiency and product performance through better engineering. Between 2006 and 2014, LCA shows that the industry reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 35%, in addition to improvements in other environmental impacts.
Corrugated recovery has increased dramatically in the past 25 years so that corrugated is the most-recovered packaging material available today. Increased recovery of old corrugated containers (OCC), from 72% in 2006 to 85% in 2014, is the primary reason greenhouse gas emissions declined 35% during the same time. Recycling corrugated makes an important difference and is one of the ways the corrugated industry can continue to improve its environmental footprint.
Packaging represents only 3% to 15% of a product’s total environmental impact. The rest comes from the product itself, so protecting it from damage and premature disposal is very important. Corrugated suppliers specialize in designing packages optimized for performance and materials use. Source reduction has been practiced within the industry for decades, engineering high performance packaging with the least possible amount of fiber material. In fact, the industry has worked with its customers to reduce the amount of corrugated per unit of U.S. industrial production by 12% from 2000 to 2017.
The full LCA is available for download at corrugated.org/corrugated-life-cycle-assessment/.