Someday, somewhere, someone will do the final analysis and end the debate between which is better—paper or plastic. Doing a true life-cycle analysis will have to take us back, before the age of tree-eating dinosaurs and before they were both compressed by time into petroleum products, only later to become fuel in the debate about what is really best for the environment. It ain’t going to be easy.
While we’re waiting for the analysis to be completed, we can continue our search for the definition of sustainability. A new and scholarly effort recently came to me in the form of a white paper, written by Bill Armstrong, technical development manager, Sealed Air Co. Twenty-some odd years ago (and some have been more odd than others) when I first met Bill, his message in the labs at Sealed Air was transport packaging is about adequately protecting the product with a minimal amount of material. He was, and is, mostly material agnostic, with a slight bias for petroleumbased products.
Bill says sustainability is actually much more broadly based and encompasses far greater concerns than landfill avoidance and controlling litter.
“One term most often used to describe sustainability,” says Bill, “is that it is ‘holistic’ in nature—involving broad-based consideration of all of the various elements that go into the process and product.”
The challenge of sustainability is that there are so many pieces to the puzzle of what makes a product or packaging material sustainable.
“Sustainability, overall, includes sustainable packaging, sustainable products, sustainable processes, sustainable manufacturing, sustainable industries and sustainable economies,” to mention just a few, says Bill.
He’s been looking at an even bigger challenge—the one he calls life-cycle assessment.
“In this process,” he says, “each step in the creation, distribution, use and ultimate disposal of the
package or material is evaluated in terms of the raw materials and energy input into each stage of creation, compared with the products created along with the byproducts of the process, including air emissions, water emissions and solid wastes generated.”
Stop a moment and try to get your head around all that would be involved in analyzing something as simple as that coffee cup from Starbucks you’re holding.
Typically, says Bill, the analysis starts with mining the ores, pumping the petroleum, growing the crops, etc., that go into creating the raw materials that go into the production of the package or material. Next is the energy required to transport the raw materials (along with the emissions created by this transportation) and then doing the same for the manufacturing process and then the distribution process, the use phase and then, eventually, the recycling and/or disposal stage. Using existing LCA processes, these factors can then all be combined to create a Life-cycle Inventory, which can then be used to assess the overall impact this package or material will have on the overall environment. The assessment can also be effectively applied to the process of improving the environmental profile of the package or material.
If you’d like to read Bill’s full white paper, it can be found on our Web site at www.MHMonline.com. Meanwhile, until we can better understand the beginning of the sustainability process, I suggest we think about the end: reduce, reuse and recycle.