, Volume 15, Issue 9, pp 938-945
Date: 27 Jul 2010

LCA studies comparing beverage cartons and alternative packaging: can overall conclusions be drawn?

Abstract

Background and purpose

Numerous life cycle assessments (LCAs) have been conducted on the environmental impacts of beverage packaging systems. With such a potentially rich source of knowledge available, it seemed worthwhile to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of those existing studies. This paper describes a recent ‘meta analysis’, whose goal it was to provide a structured overview of LCAs on beverage cartons and other packaging systems from past years in order to answer two key questions: (1) Is it possible to draw general conclusions regarding the environmental performance (in terms of strengths and weaknesses) of beverage cartons in comparison to alternative packaging systems from these existing LCAs? (2) If certain trends arise across these LCA studies regarding the environmental performance of beverage cartons compared to other packaging systems for beverages, what can be said on their validity and limitations?

Methods

The meta analysis presented covers 22 LCA studies, all of which fulfil three criteria: (1) full life cycle approach, (2) beverage carton must be among the products evaluated in study, and (3) comparative approach. Each of these studies was categorised either as a core study (if focussed on Europe, conducted in 2000 or later, and peer reviewed) or as a basic study. Next to providing detailed comparisons of the analysed studies, the full report on the meta analysis was designed to allow a quick understanding of their main characteristics (or ‘profiles’). Similarities and differences were highlighted both in terms of results and the applied methodologies (e.g., key settings) and the validity and limitations of the findings were stated. Additionally, further environment-related topics of special interest to stakeholders in the beverage packaging industry were addressed.

Results, discussion, and conclusions

For certain environmental impact indicators/inventory categories, the LCA studies covered in this meta analysis indicate general trends regarding the performance of beverage cartons versus alternative packaging systems. For climate change, cumulated energy demand/fossil resource consumption, and acidification, all regarded by the majority of all studies, beverage cartons mostly have the most favourable results, while in terms of land use for forestry, they clearly require the largest area. For summer smog and terrestrial eutrophication, the result ‘pattern’ points towards a favourable picture for beverage cartons; however, fewer LCA studies provide results for these impact categories. For other environmental aspects, where the results of the analysed studies vary strongly, no clear pattern can be made out. Several aspects were covered in too few LCA studies in order for an overall trend or lack thereof to become visible, and still others—which in part have been receiving increased attention in the past years—are not addressed in any of the analysed core or basic studies.