Be wary and wiser when confronted with LCA study results.




Rick Lingle, the Editor in Chief of this publication, knows that reducing food waste is a subject near and dear to my heart. He recently sent me a link to a new food waste report and asked me to check into it.

The report was based on a study done for a producer of under sink garbage disposals (FWDs, or food waste disposers, in marketing jargon). The description concluded that due to reduced greenhouse gas generation, it is better to put food scraps through an FWD than to send them to a landfill. The logic was that once at a landfill, food “quickly decomposes and produces methane, an environmentally harmful greenhouse gas at least 21 times more potent than CO2.” (Never mind the fact that nothing quickly decomposes in a landfill. Bill Rathje, the legendary garbologist, found 50-year old hot dogs in pristine condition in the Tucson landfill.)

The report went on to say, “capable wastewater treatment plants can even recycle food scraps into energy and fertilizer.” However, at no point was the term “capable wastewater treatment plant” defined, nor was there any indication as to the number or percentage of wastewater plants that can be defined as such.

OK, I’m obviously a skeptic. I explored further in the actual study. The executive summary stated, “…the carbon footprint of the landfill is primarily related to non-captured landfill gas (methane). If all of the landfill gas is captured, the landfill scenario is in the same range as the extended aeration wastewater treatment scenarios.” Hmmm. This changes things a bit.

OK, it changes things a lot.

The next paragraph was particularly revealing: “The environmental burden of disposing of food waste by composting or waste-to-energy is very small across all environmental indicators considered, due to a small burden associated with operation of the (disposal) facility and credits in the system.” So, in reality, there is no real issue here, and if there were one, it’s hard to say that an FWD is really any better than a landfill.

Finally, at no point was it mentioned that reducing food waste (one of the primary roles of packaging) is far more preferable than figuring out how to most efficiently dispose of it. (Of course, no food waste would eliminate the need for an FWD!)

OK, I know more about analyzing LCA research than most people. So, here are a few simple things to do when confronted with similar studies:

1. Determine for whom the research was conducted and why they are interested in the results. There is nothing wrong with an FWD marketer funding research to prove the environmental merits of its products, as long as the funder exercises no control over the study’s design, execution, results or conclusions.
 
2. Find out who performed the research and determine if their credentials are appropriate for the work being done.  Be suspicious of “experts” whose credentials are in fields not directly related to the research in question.

3. Don’t just read the funder’s press release or summary. Read the report published by the organization that performed the research.

4. Check to see if the study was peer reviewed. Today, it’s almost mandatory that LCA research be peer reviewed if results are to be taken seriously.

5. Make sure that any conclusions reached are consistent with the findings. Findings are facts. Conclusions are deductions based on those facts. Put on your critical thinking cap and make sure that the conclusions reached are supported by the data.

And remember, caveat emptor. You may not be the buyer of the study, but you are the intended buyer of the results. Beware.  

Robert M. Lilienfeld is a Fox TV environmental commentator and Editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a newsletter dedicated to conserving resources and reducing waste. He also founded the Use-less-stuff.com website. Along with Dr. William J. Rathje, he co-authored the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are and the 1995 landmark New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled, Six Enviro-Myths.