What life cycle assessments can (and can’t) do

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 23rd April 2024, in News

As life cycle assessments evaluate the environmental impact of packaging, they can play a key role in helping businesses make informed choices for their supply chain. For the best insights on sustainable packaging, however, you need food safety and food waste studies on top.

life cicle assessment

Life cycle assessments

Why are life cycle assessments important and powerful tools?

With pressure increasing from all sides for companies to improve sustainability, every decision around environmental issues matters. How do you know if your packaging choices will make your fresh grocery supply chain sustainable?

Julia Boulter, Senior Manager, ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) at IFCO, recommends adopting life cycle thinking. "By thinking in terms of the whole life cycle – from cradle to grave – you get a much clearer picture of the environmental impact of your packaging choices. And the most detailed and comprehensive form of life cycle thinking is a life cycle assessment."

Beverly Sauer agrees with that statement. A chemical engineer and Senior LCA Project Manager at Franklin Associates, an internationally recognized pioneer of life cycle impact studies and a division of Eastern Research Group (ERG), Sauer has over 30 years of experience in the field of life cycle analysis. A respected member of the LCA team, Sauer is an expert at identifying, compiling and evaluating the individual contributors that determine the environmental performance of products and services.

"Thanks to their comprehensive nature, life cycle assessments help businesses better understand how and why their choices matter in terms of their environmental profile," Sauer says.

What exactly is a life cycle assessment?

When considering which packaging solutions are best suited for individual supply chain, businesses tend to focus on qualitative characteristics, such as recyclability or materials used. However, Sauer points out, these characteristics don’t provide the full picture. To make an informed decision, you need more information. And this needs to be in the form of quantitative data.

That’s where a life cycle assessment comes in. To use the ISO 14040 definition – the widely accepted international standard for the methodology for life cycle assessments and the standard that the studies for IFCO follow – LCAs involve the "compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle".

The first LCA was conducted in 1969 and involved the comparison of beverage containers for Coca Cola. The focus at the time was on energy consumption and solid waste. Since then, LCAs have broadened the evaluation to include raw materials and emissions. Today, according to a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 69% of the businesses they surveyed have already conducted life cycle assessments, but only on less than 25% of their product portfolio.

In a nutshell, an LCA is the systematic analysis of the potential environmental impacts over the whole life cycle of a product, process or service. It covers the sourcing of raw material, manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal/recycling. Each of these stages has impacts associated with material and energy inputs as well as waste outputs.


The value of accurate LCAs

A standalone LCA is therefore a powerful tool for identifying the main contributors to environmental impacts of a product or service. A comprehensive study performed by independent organizations that follow international standards, such as ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, will pinpoint target areas and relevant levers for reducing their overall environmental impact.

Another renowned organization in this field is the Department Life Cycle Engineering at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP (Fraunhofer IBP). The department has been actively involved in the development, realization and testing of life cycle assessments for 35 years, both in research and development and with and for industrial companies. Together with IFCO and Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg (SIM), Fraunhofer IBP has performed several life cycle assessment and carbon footprint studies of fruit and vegetable transport systems in recent years.

Dr. Stefan Albrecht, the Group Manager Materials and Product Systems, and Mathias Fischer, the Head of Department Life Cycle Engineering, can draw on their extensive experience to provide more details on the value of LCAs.

"Our LCAs allow the environmental impact of products to be quantified over their life cycle using reliable and recognized engineering methods," Albrecht says. "The results form the basis for targeted and effective optimization towards more environmentally friendly systems. Only when the findings of our research are applied in companies can they make an effective contribution to climate and environmental protection."

Fischer emphasizes that the LCAs performed by Fraunhofer IBP can make it easier for companies to address sustainability. "The comprehensible, transparent and reliable life cycle assessments can contribute to science-based quantitative decision-making."

In such cases, LCAs help businesses explore what decisions, innovations or changes to processes will have the greatest impact on the sustainability of their operations.

What questions can LCAs answer?

A comprehensive LCA can reveal the trade-offs between different measures and help answer key strategic questions on the topic of sustainable packaging:

pallet efficiency

What difference would it make to increase the proportion of recycled content in reusable packaging?

ifco icon reusable packaging solutions

What impact would a more resource-efficient cleaning process have?

pallet optimal design

What changes to design could extend service life?

renewable energy

What impact would the use of renewable energy have on my product’s carbon footprint?

recycling process

How could the recycling process be improved?

ifco icon sustainability

What priorities should we be setting for reducing the impacts of production, use and recycling processes?

The answers and resulting insights help identify which measures are most impactful and most viable.

"Accurately, continuously and independently measuring the environmental impact of our SmartCycle pooling system and reusable packaging containers through life cycle assessments is a necessary process toward our goal of becoming a Net Zero business by 2040," highlights Iñigo Canalejo, Vice President, ESG & Strategic Marketing at IFCO, who is overseeing IFCO’s ambitious decarbonization strategy.

In addition, conducting comprehensive LCAs ensures our efforts align with the UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) that are most relevant to our business. Most importantly, our measures to drastically reduce our supply chain emissions tie into SDG 13, Climate Action, while our circular business model aligns with SDG 12, which promotes the responsible consumption and production of materials.

LCAs support decarbonization of the supply chain

"The LCAs help us to identify the hotspots in our circular business model so that we can continue to improve our model further and increase the environmental benefits that we already deliver for our customers," adds Canalejo. "While the studies confirm that the IFCO circular business model is inherently sustainable, we are committed to achieving even more."

For IFCO, LCAs have led to a greater understanding of the measures that have the biggest impact on environmental savings. "For example, addressing the impacts associated with producing RPCs, the more times our RPCs are used, the more value everyone gets out of the resources that have gone into producing our reusable containers," explains Canalejo.

"This is why we develop robust, durable packaging solutions that withstand temperature fluctuations and harsh conditions during transportation, ensuring product freshness and extending shelf life," continues Canalejo. "Or why we have increased the proportion of recycled content in our new containers and ensure that our RPCs are 100% recycled in our SmartCycle at the end of life."

It’s also why IFCO packaging solutions are folded when empty, taking up less space so fewer reverse logistics journeys are necessary; and why IFCO service centers are strategically located to reduce the distance travelled. "We are also collaborating with our retail and grower partners to cut redundant transportation legs," concludes Canalejo. "Combined, all these improvements are key to making the fresh grocery supply chain more efficient and sustainable."

Decarbonization accelerates

The environmental savings achieved with the IFCO SmartCycle and RPCs, and the measures to increase them, are outlined in the recently published IFCO Roadmap to Decarbonization.

The report includes near-term science-based targets (SBTs) for 2031 that have been validated by the Science Based Targets initiative, an independent body, thereby confirming that IFCO’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions align with a 1.5-degree scenario, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Why perform a comparative life cycle assessment?

A comparative life cycle assessment goes even deeper than a standalone LCA, which offers additional benefits. "A comparative cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment brings transparency to the decision-making process," notes Sauer. "It uses qualitative information about a product or service to develop models that assess impacts along the entire life cycle of the product system, and then provides a set of quantitative metrics that can be used to make a proper comparison between different options on the basis of providing equivalent functionality."

A comparative study makes sense if you want to compare your options, for instance plastic vs glass bottles, cotton vs polyester fabrics or concrete vs steel constructions. In the context of packaging, this kind of LCA allows science-backed, evidence-based comparisons between alternative packaging solutions.

"Comparative LCAs provide a useful service for us and for our customers," adds Boulter. "They provide reliable data about the energy and water consumption during the production and use of a product or service, as well as the waste produced along the way. You can really look at the environmental benefits and burdens of one option compared to another."

There are other important aspects to LCAs, continues Canalejo. "A comparative LCA allows us to scientifically answer the main question our customers ask us: which type of packaging is better for the environment, single-use recyclable cardboard or reusable packaging containers. What’s more, through comparative life cycle assessments, we demonstrate our environmental consciousness and active commitment to a culture of continual improvement."

Interested in taking a deep dive into the world of life cycle assessments with experts in the field? Watch our free webinar!

ESG webinar: advance your sustainability goals

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Why perform comparative LCAs using ISO 14040 and ISO 14044?

It’s hard to overstate the value of a comparative life cycle assessment. Any comparative LCA that follows ISO 14040/ISO 14044 standards must be peer reviewed by a panel of experts if the results are published externally. This guarantees credibility. Any conclusive statements in the LCA must also be fair and unbiased, and clearly supported by the data.

"A comparative LCA — such as the – based on a life cycle analysis" – makes it possible to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the respective systems in fulfilling the functions and to compare such systems and similar boundary conditions," adds Fischer. "They therefore form the basis for environmentally friendly packaging system design and selection of the most suitable packaging system."

Comparative LCAs are therefore undoubtedly incredibly useful, but they are also more complex for businesses to carry out. "In our view, it is worth the time, energy and specialist manpower that we invest in these studies," says Canalejo. "And we speak from two decades of experience." The first IFCO LCA was carried out in 2004.

LCAs promote a circular economy approach to packaging

The importance of LCAs in general was recently highlighted in a report issued by the United Nations Environment Program and conducted by the Life Cycle Initiative. Titled Addressing Single-use plastic products pollution, using a life cycle approach, the paper offers a comprehensive LCA meta-analyses on single-use products and their alternatives, including packaging solutions.

A key finding is that "single use" is more problematic for the environment and that reusable packaging solutions should be prioritized wherever possible. Taking a circular economy approach would keep resources at their highest value for as long as possible, the report concludes.

ifco sustainability certificate

How do you quantify the environmental impact?

Third-party, peer-reviewed LCA studies are the basis for scientifically calculating the cradle-to-grave environmental impact and benefits of switching from single-use packaging to IFCO reusable packaging containers. Each year, customers are awarded their own IFCO Sustainability Certificate, which outlines the corresponding environmental savings, including in terms of carbon emissions, energy use, water consumption and solid waste.

"By using IFCO RPCs instead of single-use packaging, our customers generate impressive environmental savings," Boulter notes. "Taking the full life cycle of our packaging solutions into account, our RPCs generate up to 60% less CO2e, 86% less solid waste and use fewer natural resources, namely 80% less water and 64% less energy."

How do you know these numbers are reliable? Because they are the results of peer-reviewed comparative life cycle assessments performed by impartial organizations, including Franklin Associates in the US and Fraunhofer IBP in the EU. These are two highly respected institutions skilled in identifying the environmental impact of a product or service through life cycle assessments.

What LCAs cannot measure: food waste and food safety

Despite the many insights that LCAs provide, there are areas that these studies cannot measure, including food safety and food waste (although some LCAs can measure the impacts associated with food waste). As part of our ongoing research and development activities, IFCO has commissioned third-party studies around both topics.

ifco food waste

Reducing food waste by 96%

One comprehensive study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML and University of Bonn and commissioned by Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg (SIM), the Foundation for Reusable Systems, showed that the IFCO RPCs reduce food waste by over 96%. Reducing food damage and waste can lead to substantial additional savings in environmental impacts, by avoiding the environmental impacts for growing the amount of food that becomes waste and for disposing of the wasted food.

ifco point of sale

Extending shelf life by up to four days

Another series of studies on shelf life conducted by Dr. Lippert Quality Management (formerly HortKinetix) in Sinzig, Germany, showed that IFCO RPCs keep fresh produce in better condition longer, extending shelf life by up to four days. Retailers and growers also benefit from better product quality, less waste and reduced spoilage.

pallet products transport

Ensuring zero damage in retail stores and distribution centers

One key study was carried out by product packaging experts at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), which observed that more than 8.5 percent of fresh produce in single-use packaging arriving at the distribution center and retail store was damaged. In contrast, there was zero product damage at the retail store when IFCO reusable packaging containers were used, while at the distribution center the damage was practically zero (0.12%).

ifco icon product protection

Boosting food safety

As our white paper on greater food safety confirms, IFCO RPCs are the superior packaging choice when it comes to food safety and leafy greens. The University of Georgia, one of the top research and teaching institutes in the US, carried out an independent comparative study on the microbial survival of E. coli O157:H7 on packaging surfaces designed to store and ship fresh products. The study looked at critical factors that may facilitate survival of E. coli on the surface of waxed, cardboard boxes and why airflow and non-porous material play an important role in reducing the microbial survival of E. coli in reusable packaging containers.

What the evidence shows about reusable packaging containers

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of vague language around "climate-neutral" or supposedly "climate-positive" solutions. To combat greenwashing, legislation on the usage of such language is getting stricter, including in the European Union where such misleading terms are set to be banned by 2026 unless they are accompanied by substantial evidence.

LCAs and other third-party studies provide the necessary body of scientific evidence. Increasingly, IFCO customers are choosing to publish the IFCO Sustainability Certificate as it is viewed as a trustworthy endorsement of their commitment to reducing their environmental footprint.

"At IFCO, we are proud to be one of the pioneers in life cycle thinking," concludes Boulter. "And we’re proud to be making it easier for our customers to think in life cycles and make science-backed comparisons across alternative packaging options."

Finally, Canalejo sums up the company’s multitiered approach to making the fresh grocery supply chain sustainable. "Life cycle assessments, third-party food safety research and food waste studies enable evidence-based decision-making, which is what we need to move the fresh grocery supply chain toward a net zero future within the necessary tight timescale."

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