Measuring sustainability

When developing sustainable product-packaging combinations, you often ask yourself questions such as:

  • Which of these two packaging materials is more sustainable?
  • How sustainable am I with this product-packaging combination, compared to my competitor?
  • How can I determine if I will realise my target, for example a 10% reduction of CO2 emission, with this product-packaging combination?

When answering these questions, you want to be able to estimate or measure sustainability. This is often done with a Lifecycle Analysis (LCA), which determines the environmental impact of the product-packaging combination, from the initial extraction of raw materials via production and usage to its ultimate disposal. Aspects such as energy usage, material usage, waste streams, and emissions into the environment are taken into account. The environmental impact is usually expressed in CO2 values, although water usage, toxicity or other ecological indicators may also be used.

There are many tools available with which to conduct LCAs. Similarly, there are many consultancy firms that offer their services in this field. Conducting an LCA requires specialist knowledge and the various tools each have specific points of attention to keep in mind. That is why the KIDV has drawn up a brief description of a number of key tools and the most prominent issues to look out for when conducting an LCA. You can find this description below, under “More information.”


More information

Life cycle analysis (LCA)
A life cycle analysis (LCA) is used to analyse the environmental impact of a product, for example a smartphone, or a product-packaging combination, for example a bag of soup. For packaging materials, this analysis can be used to compare alternative product-packaging combinations in a similar context. An LCA can also be used by policy makers to analyse the environmental impact of their policies.

An LCA is used to determine the environmental impact of every process involved in the development of a product-packaging combination, i.e. every step of a packaging’s lifecycle. A step may be the transport from one factory to another or the production of the raw material. Because collecting the data pertaining to each of these processes yourself is an impossible task, there are databases from which the necessary information on the sub-processes can be retrieved.

An ISO standard (ISO series 14040) is available for the development of LCAs. The development of an LCA consists of several steps. Firstly, the goal and scope are defined. The second step is the delineation, during which the system limits are set and the various processes are described. Next, the environmental impact of each of these processes is determined using a certain analysis method. Finally, the results are interpreted, the assumptions are evaluated and conclusions are drawn.

When reading and interpreting the results of an LCA, it is therefore important to know which system limits were used, how the processes were described, what database was used, what analysis method was applied and what assumptions were made. For example, it is not possible to compare product-packaging combinations from different LCAs without first comparing the aforementioned aspects. It is not easy to draw up a complete LCA yourself, but there are several agencies that specialise in it.


Simplified LCAs
Simplified tools are also available. These do not conduct a full-spectrum LCA, but still give users an idea of the environmental impact of for example a specific part of a packaging’s lifecycle. Some organisations use these tools to compare different packaging materials. That is usually done by drawing up a list of all packaging materials that the organisation uses, including their material weight per product unit. If multi-layer materials are used, the different layers are included on the list as separate materials. For each of these materials, a database, for example Ecoinvent, is used to determine the environmental impact in eco points and/or CO2 equivalent values. In some cases, a rough estimate of the effect of recycling and the use of recycled materials can be taken into consideration. Delft University of Technology has developed a free app, Idemat, that also allows users to determine these values. However, its database currently contains a limited number of packaging materials.

Tools like these make it possible to compare different packaging materials in a relatively simple manner. It is important to remember that you are only looking at the environmental impact of the materials. The effects on product usage and waste separation are not included in these analyses, even though they can have a considerable influence on the total environmental impact.

That is why these tools are sometimes used in combination with a full LCA. A full LCA can be conducted for a product group to determine the main sustainability factors and the bandwidth of the effect that the choice of packaging has on the environmental impact of the product-packaging combination as a whole.


LCA software and tools
For your information, the KIDV has drawn up a list – which is certainly not exhaustive – of LCA software, online tools, and a useful book.

Free software

  • KIDV Sustainable Packaging Compass: a simplified LCA that allows companies to determine the sustainability of packaging based on three pillars (recyclability, circularity and environmental impact). It also allows comparing the current product-packaging combination with other alternatives.
  • Ecolizer: a tool developed by the Belgian organisation OVAM that lists the environmental impact of a large number of materials.
  • Idemat: a tool that allows designers to compare materials and processes based on their environmental impact. With the IdematLightLCA app, you can perform a simple LCA calculation.

Paid software 

  • SimaPro: the LCA software used by the research agency PRé.
  • GaBi: the LCA software used by Thinkstep, which targets a number of audiences.
  • Umberto: developed by the German ifu Institut für Umweltinformatik. It focuses on engineering.
  • EcoChain: an LCA tool that allows users to enter data from third parties (e.g. suppliers) and have them do this themselves, in addition to using the existing database.
  • InstantLCA: software developed by Intertek that with a focus on packaging materials, among other things.
  • Piqet: an online LCA tool with a focus on packaging materials.
  • PackageSmart: a simplified tool with a focus on packaging materials.
  • Dassault Systèmes: an LCA tool that uses so-called 'virtual twin experiences', i.e. computer models and simulations to virtually test products and designs. This allows you to take environmental impact into account at the idea stage.

A quick reference guide to LCA data and ecobased materials selection. This book, published by Delft University of Technology, can help designers estimate the environmental impact of different materials. The environmental impact is related to the properties of the materials, e.g. strength and rigidity. 


LCA for coffee systems
Several examples of LCAs can be found on the KIDV’s website. To give you an impression of the use of an LCA, you can take a look at the report “LCA of coffee consumption: comparison of single-serve coffee and bulk coffee brewing.” This report describes the results of an LCA for single-serve and filter coffee systems. The LCA compares these systems to determine which of the two has the largest environmental impact in the United States and Canada.