Measuring Impact: Life Cycle Assessment as a Sustainability Tool

LCA Article

Packaging design has emerged as a key ingredient in the food industry’s quest to operate more sustainably.

Food manufacturers such as wholesale baking companies are increasingly taking a holistic look at the packaging they use for their products, from the raw materials used to fabricate the packaging to the packaging’s end-of-life disposition.

A report compiled by Cypress Research for the American Bakers Association and Baking & Snack magazine, sponsored by Corbion, found that 83% of wholesale baking companies either had sustainable packaging programs in place, under development, or were considering implementing such programs in the next 24 months. That figure includes 62% of respondents that currently have such programs in place or under development.

In addition, 36% of wholesale baking companies said they have established formal, measurable targets related to sustainable packaging.
In fact, the baking industry is among the leading sectors of American commerce when it comes to adopting environmentally friendly practices. Its extensive history of recognition through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program is perhaps the leading example of this.

“It’s a voluntary program, but our members continue to be about half of the manufacturing participants,” said Rasma Zvaners, VP of government relations at the ABA.

When it comes to packaging and recycling, wholesale baking manufacturers each take a different approach to sustainability, Zvaners said.
“Depending on the size of your operations, or whether you are publicly or privately held, you may have different obligations, or you may be looking at sustainability through a different lens,” she said.

In order to optimize packaging decisions and meet both regulatory and consumer demands around sustainability, it is important for companies to conduct a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of their packaging solutions.

A Life Cycle Assessment (sometimes called a Life Cycle Analysis) of a packaging solution examines all of the inputs that are used to produce a unit of packaging, including energy and raw materials, the manufacturing of the item, its safety as a packaging material, capabilities for storage, distribution, and eventual disposal and recycling. Data garnered through an LCA can contradict previously held assumptions about sustainability, and help companies fully understand the benefits and tradeoffs of various packaging options.

In addition, conducting a thorough LCA not only helps companies meet their goals around sustainability through the design of more environmentally friendly packaging, but also provides the documentation required to support packaging decisions when making environmental and sustainability claims.

LCA, step by step

Companies seeking to optimize the sustainability of their packaging may conduct multiple LCAs throughout the development of the packaging solution. This helps them change course and make adjustments if it becomes apparent that a solution won’t meet sustainability or other goals, said Nathan Mckee, sustainability analyst manager at Trayak, a product and packaging sustainability consulting and software solutions company.

“LCA is a good way to look at packaging with a methodical, science-based approach, to see what impacts you’re responsible for and identify hotspots so that you can make course corrections and changes,” he said.

While companies sometimes think of LCA as a tool reserved for products after they go to market, LCA can also be conducted along the various stages of the packaging design process, even as companies work to finalize the end package.

“I don’t think companies use LCA early enough in the design stages,” said Mckee. “LCA can be leveraged for a lot more than reporting on total impact.”

By applying LCA tools earlier in the design process, companies can make better decisions about the potential trade-offs involved with creating a packaging solution, he explained.

“In essence, you can reduce your own risk by avoiding making a wrong decision, and then have the data to support the decisions you do move forward with,” Mckee said.

Among the questions that companies can consider in the packaging design phase are the impact of the material used, potential efficiency improvements that could be achieved through design, and the role that packaging design plays in optimizing palletization and transportation. An LCA can also look at a broad range of impacts, including not only the packaging’s carbon footprint but also its water footprint, its contribution to plastic pollution, the land use involved in its sourcing and production, and its potential circularity (or repurposing), according to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Making the right decisions

In order to optimize the benefits of conducting an LCA, it’s important for companies to make good decisions with the information gleaned from the data.

While companies are evaluating the data around the sustainability of their packaging, they must also consider factors such as performance and cost. The performance of the packaging in particular is vital, Mckee pointed out, citing such factors as barrier properties — the ability to keep baked goods fresh and dry, for example — and the ability of the packaging to protect the product from damage during transport.

“It’s one thing to find out the environmental impact, but that’s not the end goal,” said Mckee. “The end goal is to make a decision on what to do and where to focus your resources. The bottom line is that you need to prioritize sustainability while also moving the product in a way that keeps it fresh and protects its integrity.”

Working with packaging solutions suppliers such as Kwik Lok, which has sustainability as a core part of its mission and has conducted LCAs on its own products, can help companies on their own sustainability journeys. Kwik Lok’s extensive materials research has led to the development of several sustainable packaging solutions, including bag closures that use post-consumer recycled material and other materials that are recyclable or compostable.

Its Enviro-Lok polypropylene bag closures were designed to offer the potential for recycling, without the loss of strength or reliability. They also use 34% less plastic than standard Kwik Lok closures, are made using less water, and with reduced carbon emissions. Other solutions include Kwik Lok’s Fibre-Lok clips, which are made from recycled paperboard materials.

For more information about Kwik Lok packaging solutions, including a complete line of packaging solutions, including closures, bag-closing machines and printers, visit To learn more about LCAs for your packaging, visit