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Packaging becomes an important part of the LCA (Life Cycle Assessment)

The EU announces that, by 2026, packaging will become part of the digital product passport. With this, packaging will no longer be seen as a standalone product. Read more on what this means for Life Cycle Assessments.

Digital Product Passport

Life Cycle Assessments are product-specific studies that express the environmental impact in numbers. These numbers will be used in the future to communicate the sustainable performance of products through digital product passports.

This is necessary because the search for more sustainable products is becoming increasingly important, both for consumers and producers. However, it is still complicated to make the right sustainable choices, due to a lack of clear information. That is why the European Union plans to introduce the Digital Product Passport (DPP) around 2026. This passport will be product-specific and part of the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR). It will provide information on sustainable performance, composition, origin, and reuse possibilities of products.

The goal of the ESPR is to ensure that products have a longer lifespan, are easier to repair, and are easier to recycle. The DPP contains the information to facilitate this goal, providing crucial information for all links in the chain, such as the product's composition, repair/reuse options, and environmental impact. For more information on the ESPR and DPP, you can refer to this article.

Packaging as part of DPP

The EU announces that packaging will soon become part of the digital product passport of a unique product. Packaging will no longer be seen as a standalone product, as it was previously perceived. Life Cycle Assessments evaluate the environmental impact of products throughout their entire lifecycle, including all activities in production, use, and eventual disposal. As a result, packaging will play an increasingly important role in the LCAs of everyday products. But what does this mean exactly

Packaging influences the overall environmental impact of a product, but the specific criteria the EU will use to measure this contribution are not yet certain and depend on various factors. These factors include the chosen packaging materials, the level of protection provided by the packaging, and the potential for reuse or recycling. When assessing packaging, the concept of "fit for purpose" is considered, meaning that the most sustainable packaging depends on the specific product it is used for. Many packaging solutions are "overprotective," resulting in unnecessary packaging materials and a larger environmental impact. Read more about fit for purpose later in this article.

Three characteristics of sustainable packaging

We will focus on three characteristics of sustainable packaging that determine the environmental impact assessed through a life cycle analysis: renewability, reusability, and recyclability.

-Renewability: Are the materials used in the packaging derived from renewable sources? For example, paper is derived from a renewable source, namely trees. However, renewability alone is not enough. Factors such as the packaging's lifespan, the presence of toxic substances, and the amount of waste generated must also be considered. Some packaging made from renewable sources may not be reusable.

Renewable materials have a lower environmental impact during the production phase and throughout their life cycle analysis. This is because renewable materials can regrow and, if sustainably managed, are inexhaustible. Examples include wood, cardboard, and paper.

-Reusability: Can a packaging be used multiple times, or is it disposed of immediately? Reusability plays a significant role in minimizing the consumption of natural resources. Examples of reusable packaging include glass bottles, jars, and plastic crates. However, reusable packaging requires an advanced system for collection and cleaning, which requires energy and water. There must also be a mechanism for reintroducing used packaging into the market. This is already possible for glass and plastic bottles, and recently for aluminum cans as well.

A life cycle analysis assesses the entire lifespan of the packaging material and the product. When the packaging has multiple usage phases, the environmental impact is spread across those phases. These usage phases are also referred to as life cycles. By considering the packaging in the Digital Product Passport, the impact of the packaging can be spread across multiple DPPs, which significantly reduces its environmental impact.

- Recyclability: Recyclable packaging is made from materials that can be used as raw materials for other products. Recyclable packaging reduces waste when properly collected and processed. However, not every product is recycled to the same extent by consumers and producers. According to EU statistics, the highest recycling rates are for paper fiber (82%), followed by metal (76%), glass (76%), and plastic (38%).

Like reusable packaging, recyclable packaging can spread its environmental impact across multiple cycles. However, recycling requires additional energy in each life cycle to recycle the packaging, unlike reusability, which does not require additional energy. As a result, recycling is slightly less sustainable compared to reusability.

'Fit for purpose' and its impact on the digital product passport

Ultimately, the end product itself determines which packaging causes the least impact. This principle is called 'fit for purpose.' In some cases, for example, compared to plastic crates, cardboard crates can prevent significant environmental damage during the transportation of food. Even though plastic lasts longer, plastic crates are much more harmful in production, without providing significant added value for transporting the food. In other cases, a reusable plastic or glass packaging may be preferred because it significantly extends the product's lifespan.

Therefore, it is important to consider the packaging in the evaluation of the entire product life cycle. There is no definitive answer, as there is no single type of packaging that always proves to be the most sustainable choice. In some cases, a recyclable paper bag may be preferred over a reusable glass jar, or vice versa. Renewable, reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable packaging can coexist. The most sustainable packaging should be determined on a case-by-case basis, based on the full LCA. However, there is a possibility that the EU will eventually establish specific packaging regulations for certain product groups if there are demonstrable ecological benefits.

By incorporating packaging into the LCA and, therefore, the DPP, the environmental impact of the entire product system can be more accurately assessed. This creates added value for the product and makes it easier to repair, reuse, or eventually recycle it. As transparency increases regarding a product's resources and production method, the product's circularity also improves.

Preparing for future legislations

Since it is possible that the DPP may become a legal requirement in the future, it is wise to include packaging in the LCA now. Companies can prepare themselves well for the upcoming obligation and get ahead of the competition. The easiest way is to choose packaging suppliers who already have their LCAs in order, allowing the purchaser to directly incorporate the results into their DPP.

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