Understanding the life cycle of packaging

About this article

What are the life cycle stages involved in packaging, and why are they important? This article explores the stages involved in producing, using and disposing packaging.

If you’re looking into choosing more sustainable packaging, it can be difficult to know what to look out for.

What exact factors determine the sustainability of packaging? Is it the material, recycling, or possibly something else? To understand the full environmental footprint of packaging, we need to study its whole life cycle.

Packaging has a life spanning several stages from the moment the raw materials are extracted from the earth, to the moment it becomes waste that we need to collect and process.

In this article, we explore the life stages of packaging to uncover the factors that count. We uncover what these stages look like and why they’re important. We then look at the final stage – waste processing – and explore how the waste hierarchy helps us make sustainable choices at this important stage.

Packaging has a life cycle

Packaging has a life both before, during and after it sits on our store shelves.

This begins with extracting resources from the earth – such as the extraction of fossil fuels or the felling of trees – and then processing this material into a suitable form for manufacture. Following this the material is manufactured into the correct format, at which point the packaging is distributed with the product, to be sold. The packaging is used by consumers and finally disposed of, where it may end up in one of several end-of-life destinations, such as landfill or a recycling plant.

It’s useful to appreciate the fact that these different stages each have some environmental impact. So assessing how sustainable an item of packaging is, requires factoring in the impacts that occur across these life stages. The way to do that, is a method called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

What is a life cycle assessment? (LCA)

Life Cycle Assessments are the principal method for measuring the environmental footprint of packaging, and other products and systems. The ‘environmental footprint’ refers to the impact that different activities have on our ecosystem, such as CO2 released into the atmosphere, toxic substances released into aquatic environments or other such impacts. 

LCAs require special practitioners to collect and analyse the data relating to the stages involved in the production, use and disposal of packaging. These can be expensive and time-consuming research projects, but they provide extremely valuable insight on which manufacturing methods and packaging formats represent sustainable choices.

These practitioners collect and analyse data from the following stages:

Extraction of Resources

Extracting the raw materials from the earth is the very first stage to producing packaging. Whether drilling for oil, mining the raw ore, or felling trees, every item of packaging begins its life as raw material. This is true across every packaging material – paper, plastic, aluminium, bioplastic or any other.

Material processing

The raw materials usually don’t come directly from the earth ready to use. Instead they require additional processing before they can be used in the manufacture of packaging. In the case of plastic, though typically derived from crude oil or natural gas, it must undergo several reaction processes before it is in a suitable form for moulding.

Product manufacturing

Once the raw material has been processed into a suitable form, the packaging is moulded or cut into the appropriate safe, secure and hygienic format. The main consumable product is often added to the pack at this stage.

Distribution

The packaging is shipped by boat, train, plane or truck to destinations both near and far.

Use

The packaging is used, stored, and reused sometimes. It’s important to understand good ways to use packaging to reduce environmental impacts.

End-of-life

The final stage is the end of life destination. This occurs after the packaging’s main use. Is the packaging recycled into a new product? Or sent to composting facilities? Or does it end up in landfill?

Each of these stages comes with some environmental cost. When they’re all combined and assessed, it can provide a good picture of how sustainable an item of packaging truly is.  

There’s certainly a lot to take in when it comes to understanding sustainability and the life cycle of packaging. At Verive we can help you understand the life cycle of your packaging, please visit here to talk to one of our specialists on the subject.

Sustainable packaging require optimising energy and material across the life cycle

One useful way to think about sustainability, is that packaging should perform the important job it does, without using too much energy or material resources.

In fact, we want to ‘optimise’ our use of resources.

This means whether we are using paper, aluminium, plastic or cardboard, we want to optimise our use of those resources, alongside the energy we use to process and transport them. This way we can maximise the use of what is–in effect–the limited supply the planet provides.

One useful question to ask is—how can I limit my use of energy and material, so that I stretch these resources further, for longer?

A second important question might be—how can we ensure that we are not depleting these resources, but that instead we are renewing them?

In general, the most sustainable packaging is that which allows us to protect our goods whilst using the lowest amount of materials, the least energy, and by leaving the least pollution in the environment after it is used.

That takes us nicely to the next section – what to do when packaging reaches the end of its life cycle and becomes waste?

Helpful framework: the waste hierarchy.

It’s important that packaging waste is managed carefully. One framework to help us understand how to manage packaging waste is the waste hierarchy.

The EU’s approach to waste management is based on this inverted pyramid which ranks the priority of waste management options, with ‘prevention’ at the top being the most preferred, and ‘disposal’ at the bottom, the least.

It looks like this:

The traditional waste hierarchy
Source: https://resource.co/article/new-zero-waste-hierarchy-circular-economy

The first priority is to prevent the unnecessary use of materials—reducing the use of materials across the lifecycle by preventing unnecessary use in the first place. Prevention is the best outcome. Then after that, the next priority is to consider ways to reuse the materials to get multiple uses from them. If the options there have been exhausted, then packaging must be recycled if possible.

Broadly speaking, the higher up the hierarchy, the more sustainable the practices are.

The circular economy – Rethinking the life cycle

The circular economy is a relatively recent concept and acts as a framework for thinking about the sustainability of products.

The circular economy is proposed as an improvement over our current ‘linear’ economy—which is said to rely on a ‘take-make-waste’ model of producing products like packaging. This old model relies on extracting resources to be used just once, and then disposed of, resulting in a high volume of waste.

The alternative circular economic model is proposed as a better, more environmental conscientious alternative where we create systems that ensure materials are reused again and again. The ideal is to design waste out of the system. Ultimately, this framework can help us rethink the way we approach a lot of business operations and modern products in order to help us eliminate waste.

An example in packaging is a reuse model, where packaging can be used multiple times by being collected, washed and reused. Clearly, such a complex change is not straightforward to implement, but the circular economy concept invites a new way of thinking, and provides another question for us to ask when thinking about sustainability. Namely—how can I make my business practices more circular?

Summary – Why is the life cycle important?

Understanding the life cycle of packaging is important because environmental impacts occur at every stage.

Choosing the most sustainable packaging is about choosing packaging that has the lowest impacts, when all these stages are considered. It provides a solid framework to help us think about sustainability. We can ask the question – how sustainable is this packaging format, across each stage?

If you need help making the right choice about your packaging, our team of sustainability experts can help give you the advice you need. Please feel free to get in touch today!

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