May 27, 2023
Five Sustainability Metrics for Packaging: What Businesses Need to Consider

We're often asked by customers what they should be evaluating when it comes to sustainable packaging considerations. Carbon emissions and intended end-of-life design, that is whether a product is recyclable or compostable, tend to be the key concerns. While both of these are important, they often don't tell the whole story. In this article, we're attempting to provide a breakdown of the five sustainability data points and metrics that businesses need to consider when evaluating their packaging.

  • Fossil Fuel Reliance
  • Total Material usage
  • End-of-Life treatment
  • Carbon Footprint
  • Material Circularity

Our goal here is not to promote or sell any particular material or type of packaging but give you the tools to make better, more informed decisions. It is also worth emphasizing that there is currently no silver bullet when it comes to sustainable packaging. When we put our own flexible packaging materials (Bio-based Recyclable Film, Bio-based Compostable Film, Recycled Plastic or Recycled Paper) to the test against each of the five categories there isn't one that outperforms the others across all metrics.

Let's dive in.

Breaking up with Oil & Gas
Metric: Fossil fuel reliance

99% of the world's plastics are made from materials derived from fossil fuels, namely oil and natural gas, and at all stages of the lifecycle of plastics there are GHG emissions associated (Methane, CO2 and Nitrous Oxide, amongst others). One of the most important changes that businesses can make is transitioning away from the use of virgin fossil fuels and towards circular systems that make use of the most renewable or recycled materials possible.

Let's say you run an eCommerce business and you need 1 million mailer bags to ship your products to your customers for the year. Here's how that choice of packaging material could impact your reliance on fossil fuels.

Comparing fossil fuel reliance of Virgin LDPE vs 100% PCR Recycled vs Home Compostable Bioplastic packaging

Material 1 is virgin plastic and the amount of raw material required to produce 1 million mailer bags is equal to 20,860 kgs. In this case all of that material relies on virgin fossil fuels being extracted and processed.

Compare that to material 2 that uses 100% recycled content and it completely removes the need for any virgin fossil fuel at all. That means that we have effectively avoided the demand for 20,860kgs of virgin petrochemical material, a 100% reduction. That is obviously a highly simplified example and there is a large spectrum of materials but the point is simple, choosing recycled or regenerative materials can help to reduce our reliance on virgin fossil fuels and mitigate the environmental impacts of plastic production.

Less is More. Designing for Efficiency
Metric: Material usage

On the 28th July, 2022 humanity exhausted nature's budget for the year, consuming 75% more natural resources than the planet's ecosystem can regenerate in a 12 month period. Designing for efficiency, and using less material, is the first and most critical step in achieving sustainability goals and avoiding planetary overshoot.

Linear Economy
Diagram showing how a linear economy works

Currently a lot of waste management systems are linear, and this leads to significant waste.

At the design stage of any packaging development process, one of the central considerations is to minimize the amount of material required, avoiding unnecessary components and features. This not only results in less waste and a lower environmental impact, but also helps businesses reduce their costs and increase profitability. Reducing the amount of material used also has peripheral effects such as reducing the carbon footprint due to more efficient shipping and lower transportation emissions.

Comparing material usage of Post consumer recycled PCR vs FSC recycled paper vs Home compostable packaging
Beyond Compostability and Recyclability
Metric: End-of-life scenario

When it comes to evaluating the sustainability of packaging, end-of-life considerations are usually the first thing people think about, whether something is compostable or recyclable. Alarmingly there is still a lot of packaging that has been designed as single-use, with no ability to be recycled, composted or re-used. There is no doubt that designing your packaging to work within a specific end-of-life system is a critical part of any sustainable packaging strategy. But arguably that should be table stakes at this point.

Businesses need to be able to go beyond and understand the nuances of different waste management systems and how they vary by material type and geographical location. Only once you understand that can you design something to facilitate the best possible outcome. It is important to understand the waste management systems available to your customers, as they can vary significantly by region and council (local municipality). Grounded employs waste management and disposal data to evaluate the likelihood scenarios for a particular material in a particular location (see Table 3).

Table 3: Likely end of life disposal rate for a compostable mailer in the USA (Blueprint, 2023).

Compostable e-commerce packaging is a good example to consider. Although a lot of consumers and businesses regard compostable packaging as the “right" answer, the reality is that home and commercial composting rates are low. And when compostable packaging ends up in landfills, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in terms of global warming potential (GWP). By understanding end-of-life data and waste management systems, businesses can ensure that they have the best chance of reducing their environmental impact.

Un-choking Our Planet
Metric: CO2

In order to properly understand the carbon footprint of something you need to take account of all emissions associated with the different stages of its production. Broadly those stages can be broken down into the following categories:

  1. Raw material extraction and processes
  2. Manufacturing
  3. Logistics and distribution, both from raw material to manufacture and then from manufacture to customer
  4. Disposal of a particular product or material (landfill, incineration, recycling etc)

In industry jargon this is commonly referred to as a Life Cycle Assessment or an 'LCA'. For obvious reasons, understanding the carbon footprint of different materials and supply chains is a critical component of any sustainable packaging strategy as different packaging materials and supply chains can have very different carbon footprints.

Table 3: Table 4: Overview of GHG emissions at all stages of the life cycle of plastics.

The carbon footprint of different packaging materials is often heavily influenced by the energy intensity of the manufacturing process, and then also the source of that energy (coal, wind, solar, etc). Below you can see a summary of the five most commonly seen packaging materials.

Carbon footprint of plastic vs cardboard vs glass vs aluminium

Grounded has developed a modeling tool, Scope, which enables businesses to model and compare the carbon footprint of different materials and supply chains at a very granular level. It allows for rapid LCA modeling of a wide range of common packaging materials and types.

Table 5: Total Carbon Footprint of Stand Up Pouches across different materials (Source: Scope, 2023).

At a topline level, regardless of material type, the carbon footprint can be substantially reduced by shifting away from virgin materials and transitioning to the utilization of renewable and recycled materials that can be recycled or composted at the end of their life cycle.

Closing the loop: Designing for Circularity
Metric: MCI

One of the less understood metrics in sustainable packaging is related to the concept of 'circularity'. The idea of a circular economy is a system that requires us to consider the entire lifecycle of our products and resources, aiming to design out waste by using materials and technologies that extend product lifespans and maximize potential reuse value.

It is this concept of circularity that we believe to be the single most important factor from a sustainability perspective in packaging as it takes into account all key areas from raw materials and manufacture to how the product is used and then finally what happens to it at end-of-life.

Diagram showing how a circular economy works

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has designed a calculation called the Material Circularity Indicator (MCI for short). The MCI takes into account three critical factors;

  1. Amount of renewable or recycled content incorporated in manufacturing
  2. The utility or usable life of the product i.e. is is multi-use or single use
  3. Intended end-of-life destination (recycling, composting, designed to be re-used etc)and the likelihood of the product ending up in that intended destination

The MCI is scored on a scale of 0-100, with 0 being entirely linear i.e. made entirely from virgin materials and designed to be used once and sent to landfill, and 100 being perfectly circular i.e. being made from 100% recycled or renewable material and being able to be recycled back into itself (or composted) in perpetuity.

Table 6: Material Circularity of Mailer Bags (Source: Scope, 2023).

Table 6 shows the different circularity scores of three different e-commerce mailer materials and the calculation takes into account the following considerations:

Feedstock, utility, and end-of-life stats for 100% Post consumer recycled LDPE vs FSC Certified 100% recycled paper vs Virgin LDPE

Although there is no single 'right' answer or metric to look at, we believe that the MCI is the most crucial metric for sustainability in packaging as it takes into consideration all key elements.

Everything has its pros and cons, and multiple factors make up the overall packaging footprint. By taking a more holistic approach to sustainability by considering the five metrics covering fossil fuel reduction, material usage, end-of-life, carbon footprint and material circularity will lead to better outcomes.

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