Increasingly, consumers and policymakers are pushing for manufacturers to make products believed to be more eco-friendly and, with that, a cascade of recyclable, compostable and biobased ware has come online.
But an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) study challenges whether such features alone tell the story of a product’s environmental impact. The study, which analyzed years of published research on packaging and foodservice ware, made some controversial assertions: Compostable packaging has limited to no environmental benefits, the authors said. Biobased products can sometimes be detrimental. And while the fact that a product is recycled is commonly a positive, it depends on the scenario.
Researchers made these and other determinations by looking at popular attributes including “recycled content,” “compostable” and “biobased.” And they used a lifecycle assessment (LCA) to see if these attributes actually predict environmental impacts.
LCA attempts to evaluate a product’s impact from the time it’s manufactured through the end of its life, tabulating greenhouse gas emissions and estimating impacts on human health and consumption of water, energy and other resources.
“We found that when these attributes alone are applied to packaging and foodservice ware, they don’t reliably or consistently point in the direction of having low impact. We think this suggests that environmental advocates should use these attributes in a more nuanced way than is currently done. They should not be used to make universal assessments,” says David Allaway, senior policy analyst for Oregon DEQ.
Looking at the attribute, recycled content actually did prove insightful when comparing packaging made of the same material (like a glass bottle with 20 percent recycled content to one with 50 percent recycled content). The higher content almost always reduced impact more than lower content.
But when comparing different packaging materials to each other, whether a product was made from recyclable content did not predict its footprint.
With foodservice ware, researchers found insufficient data to make meaningful comparisons but hypothesized that the patterns would be consistent among this product type and packaging.
When the attribute compostable was applied to packaging there was little if any benefit found.
“Composting food or sending it for aerobic digestion is a great thing to do, but compostable packaging has very little benefit. Plus, increasingly, compost facilities don’t want it because it provides relatively little value to them. Or, worse, it disrupts their ability to sell finished products if compost contains undegraded packaging,” says Allaway. And, while these materials prove compostable in a lab, they may not behave the same at processing facilities.
With the attribute biobased, material of the same polymer type tends to reduce greenhouse gases more than products made with fossil energy. But for several other environmental impacts, such as acidification (acid rain) and eutrophication (nutrient loading into waterways), biobased packaging usually increased negative impacts compared to alternatives.
But Troy Hawkins, an energy analyst at Argonne National Labs who was involved in the DEQ study, notes that the manufacture of biobased products is a young industry compared to the plastics industry. “Because it doesn’t look good today does not mean that as biobased materials evolve, they won’t look better in the future,” he says.
Not everyone is sold on LCAs to get a comprehensive, fair picture. One concern is lifecycle models generally do not assess for mismanaged materials. For example, plastic containers are a lighter weight than metals and glass but wind up in water, break down and are ingested by fish, while heavier materials are less likely to get dispersed, state the authors of an article in the Environmental Leader.
Hawkins’ counter is that there is little data to back some of these impacts. “It’s an emerging science and it takes time to understand the issues and quantify them,” he says.
Allaway agrees that LCA has a hole that’s specific to mismanaged materials.
Going back to the marine debris example, he says, “We studied whether these attributes reliably and consistently point to low impact, and lifecycle assessment tells us they don’t. But it doesn’t tell us the whole story since it doesn’t look at marine debris.”
However, he points out, if one were to look through the lens of attributes and ask, “Do these attributes serve as reasonable proxies to determine the impacts of marine debris, the answer is still no.”
For now, the focus is on quantifying what’s quantifiable.
“We as a society need to ask questions like, how much water, and how much and what type of energy is required to produce this material? And what are the environmental impacts measured over the entire lifecycle?” explains Allaway.