Packaging is an integral part of almost all products and the packaging industry is now worth US$ 424 billion and growing. A wide variety of materials are used for packaging including paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and other mixed-materials. Paper and plastic happens to be the most sought after materials for packaging sharing 36% and 34% respectively in the global packaging material breakdown. Despite the many positives, packaging as an activity is facing severe criticism mainly on account of its contribution to solid waste, air and water pollution throughout its life cycle. All Companies as well as buyers face the common problem of choosing paper or plastic when it comes to packaging. This paper attempted to identify the best material out of paper and plastic from the standpoint of their life cycle environmental impacts.
Comparative assessment of environmental impacts of carton packaging and plastic packaging along with its different variants has been done under the yardsticks of four parameters – Greenhouse Effect, Acidification, Eutrophication and Photochemical Ozone Formation. Out of the four types, environmental impacts are prominent in two cases, viz-greenhouse effect and acidification. Environmental impacts in case of eutrophication and photochemical ozone formation are not much well pronounced. PVC and EPS upon incineration inflict larger environmental impacts with regard to acidification. Paper or cardboard seems to be the least contributor so far as acidification is concerned. EPS and PS for incineration happen to be the largest contributor to greenhouse effect. Paper or cardboard has the lowest environmental impacts. Interestingly, paper upon incineration is found to give negative contribution to the greenhouse effect. Packaging material incineration has been considered here to be capable of replacing electricity and heat usually generated in a coal-fired plant thereby minimizing CO2 emission considerably. This may have proved to be a huge advantage in case of paper associating it with this negative paradox.
It is clear from the study that the packaging is not a simple issue as it sounds. A series of complex factors is involved in determining the best packaging material amongst paper and plastics. Some of the factors are within the control of industry, producers and distributors while factors like demographic and lifestyle changes, buyer’s preferences, etc. are not.
Environmental impact of packaging needs to be seen from the perspectives of life cycle emissions and not just of the product stage. While there remains scope to further reduce the environmental impact of packaging, the way that this is done needs to take into consideration the real life situation in the packaging sector.
Taking an overall view of the impacts of packaging, both positive and negative, is important. Packaging is a very visible part of household waste and because of that, packaging is often considered to have only a negative environmental impact. When a manufacturer chooses the packaging for a particular product, there is a wide range of factors, which influence that decision, only, some of which are environmental considerations. It is necessary to recognize the balance that has to be struck between these. Safety requirements, for example using more packaging to ensure the product cannot be tampered with. The requirement to provide information to the consumer, making the product easy to use, production efficiency, and ensuring that the packaging can withstand the various pressures in the supply chain. These factors are often not visible to the end consumer, who is usually unaware of the logistics involved before the product reaches the retailer’s shelves.
Packaging waste from households accounts for just 3 percent by weight of all waste disposed of in the EU. Arbitrarily reducing the amount of packaging with the sole objective of reducing the amount of packaging waste we discard risks increasing the amount of goods, which are thrown away because they have become damaged or spoiled as they are moved through the supply chain to the final consumer. Research has indicated that in one sector alone, damage in the European supply chain costs an estimated €3.5billion per year. This not only represents a great loss of financial resources but perhaps more worryingly, a loss of the natural resources that have gone into manufacturing and transporting the product. The role that packaging plays in preventing the loss of resources therefore needs to be acknowledged. In this respect, simply advocating packaging minimisation may not always be the best environmental option.
Since packaging caters to a variety of functions, basing the decision of which packaging material to be used for a product on the single criterion of making the packaging suitable for re-use or recycling is also likely to be environmentally unsound. For example, the use of factory-refillable bottles may be advocated but to be strong enough for refilling they need to be made thicker and being therefore heavier, transporting them consumes more fuel. This study has demonstrated the fact that different solutions will apply to different situations. One type of packaging cannot be advocated as being the best environmental option in all scenarios. A case-by-case approach needs to be taken to ensure that in each instance the environmental impacts of packaging use are minimised. Given this, how can policy best meet the objective of preventing or reducing the impact of packaging and packaging waste on the environment?
Though existing policies have always advocated prevention as the most preferable approach, experience shows that this has not delivered. At the same time, it is recognised that the different methods of managing waste all have negative environmental externalities. Policy makers have started to re-evaluate what it is that we want to achieve. Instead of focusing on ‘waste’, attention is now placed on the environmental impacts of resources use throughout the whole life cycle.
Minimisation and the prevention of waste
At present packaging is perceived only as a waste stream that needs to be addressed, rather than acknowledged as playing an important role in preventing waste and the loss of resources. In many instances under-packaging can result in more waste than over-packaging if the product is not sufficiently protected through the supply chain. This includes the resources used in the packaging and transporting products from manufacture to retail but more significantly the resources that go into the product itself. Some studies have placed the amount of energy locked up in the production of goods at ten times that used for the packaging. This represents a significant loss of resources, not to mention the implications of increased waste. Moving to a focus on reducing the environmental impact of resource use throughout its whole life cycle should help to address this. Whilst it is important to continually look for ways of reducing packaging, it is vital to consider the functional requirements of packaging and to ensure that minimisation does not result in an adverse effect of increased resource waste.
When considering the relative merits between re-use and recycling, environmental impacts of whole systems need to be taken into account. Though reuse systems may reduce the resources needed for, say, the production of one plastic crate versus multiple corrugated boxes, transportation is needed to return crates to a given point and detergent and water are used to clean the crates. Reuse systems also rely on a high level of participation. Where return is built into a business routine, particularly closed loop systems, a high return rate can be achieved.
However, when it is left to private consumers to return the used packaging, their willingness to do so will depend on how readily this fits into the way they live. Cultural differences are extremely important in determining the level of participation, and an approach used in one Member State cannot necessarily be transferred to another, or introduced Community wide. There cannot be said to be one ‘best environmental option’. In deciding whether reuse systems are preferable to one-way systems with recycling, each individual situation needs to be assessed.
Waste policy, including the Packaging Directive, has to date placed a strong emphasis on setting targets for recycling. Whilst mandatory targets play an important role by ensuring due attention is given to waste throughout the Community, this needs to be approached with some caution. The potential side effects of policy instruments need to be considered. For example, simply increasing targets for recycling may discourage prevention of waste at source and reuse. Basing targets on weight also has implications, in that it can provide a disincentive to using recycled materials in instances where a higher density of material is needed to obtain the same strength. Recycling targets need to be part of a broader package of measures, amongst which are mechanisms to encourage the development of markets for recycled materials.
Designing for Resource Efficiency
EU policy is increasingly being targeted earlier in the life cycle, moving from traditional endof-pipe solutions to preventing environmental impacts from the outset. This includes Integrated Product Policy (IPP) and integrating environmental considerations into product standardisation. The packaging industry has been aware of environmental considerations for a number of years. Over the years this process has become more systematic and this is being further encouraged by the use of the Essential Requirements and the development of best practice guidelines. Again, in designing for resource efficiency, preventing loss of the product by using effective packaging needs to be considered.
The role of the consumer Perhaps the greatest challenge to bringing about sustainable patterns of production and consumption is dealing with consumption itself. There are a number of existing policy instruments addressing the environmental impacts of production, for example Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC). Consumption, however, is harder to tackle.
Economic growth, rising living standards, changing lifestyles and demographics all create new and increasing demands on goods and services. In addition, there is variation in the degree of action that society is prepared to take and this is critical in determining the level of success of any measures introduced that require participation. Consumer awareness has been identified as a key issue that needs to be addressed. This is not only true of waste but is something that is raised time and again in relation to all environmental policy.
Suggestions for Future Research
As with most LCAs, this study was not an all-inclusive or exhaustive investigation. In light of this, areas where future research could be conducted to refine the results in this study include:
- Apply LCI and LCIA methodology to other packaging materials including the newly discovered ones. Studying a variety of other e-readers could reveal which product design has the least environmental impact.
- Examine the effects of increasing the time frame of this study.
- Issues should be addressed such as transportation.