Life-Cycle Assessment: Regulating in times of environmental challenges

Life-Cycle Assessment can help provide transparent and evidence-based decisions that are key to achieving Europe’s climate ambitions, argues Klemen Grošelj.
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By Klemen Grošelj

Klemen Grošelj (SL, RE) is Chair of the European Parliament’s Working Group on Food Packaging

23 Jun 2021

Assessing the environmental impact of different products is achieved using the so-called Life-Cycle assessment (LCA) methodology. LCA analyses all the stages of a commercial product, providing a better understanding and more holistic view of how and where emissions are introduced into the environment. 

The 2015 European Communication on Better Regulation included LCA among the tools for supporting the assessment of the impact and benefits associated with different policy options. The Communication suggested that LCA can play an important role all along the policy cycle, from policy anticipation and problem definition to policy evaluation.

The importance of LCA is that it also helps policy makers adopt the most suitable policy option. An LCA can provide support for more transparent and evidence-based decisions that enable us to achieve our ambitious climate targets.

“LCA can play an important role all along the policy cycle, from policy anticipation and problem definition to policy evaluation. The importance of LCA is that it also helps policy makers adopt the most suitable policy option”

There is, of course, a contrast in the European Parliament between the tentative approach of the evidence-based decision-making process, the role of the civil society in that process and the temptation of decisionmakers to produce the best legislative tool in response to contemporary challenges. I have introduced a discussion about an LCA in the paper packaging industry prior to the conclusion of the circular economy report.

That specific Life-Cycle assessment was produced by an independent consultancy company, Ramboll, for the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA) regarding the use of food packaging in the fast-food industry.

The findings included the fact that paper single-use dishes are sourced and manufactured in Europe, as opposed to plastic, ceramic or glass dishes that are sourced or manufactured outside Europe, mostly in Asia and China.

Also, in the case of plastic - in the most realistic and base case scenario - a massive substitution could see hundreds of millions of tons of plastic per year, mostly from China, whereas paper and board dishes are sourced from the European Union’s sustainable forests.

Single-use dishes and food packaging are in fact a perfect fit for a circular economy because of their complete and effective recyclability: they provide valuable fibre products that can be re-used up to seven times for paper or board production, while the thin plastic layer they contain is also recyclable.

“When an LCA addresses both important conclusions made by independent and nonpartisan organisations, legislators have a moral imperative to at least listen to the conclusions and then implement a holistic solution to the problem”

Single-use paper dishes and packaging are also extremely hygienic products. They best protect food and prevent cross-contamination, as demonstrated in many studies, and are the only feasible option for maintaining adequate food hygiene, public health and consumer safety.

When it comes to climate change, the single-use system shows very significant benefits with polypropylene-based multi-use systems generating 2.7 times more CO2-e emissions than paper-based single-use systems. 

Therefore single-use food packaging is a critical enabler of the whole value chain, particularly during the current health pandemic.

Taking into account the current implementation of the single-use plastics Directive throughout EU Member States and the goal-oriented policy of the European Green Deal, it is important to analyse all aspects and impacts of the aims that policymakers want to achieve, not only to make them realistic but also to deliver the outcome we all wish; to have an impact in combating our environmental challenges.

When an LCA addresses both important conclusions made by independent and nonpartisan organisations, legislators have a moral imperative to at least listen and then implement a holistic solution to the problem. This will help us all in achieving the EU’s policy goals. 

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