Life cycle assessment FUN!

June 25, 2010

Greetings and Happy Friday!

Sorry I didn’t post yesterday; Thursdays’ post was just so super big I thought I would give it two days to resonate. Anywhoooooooooo, while I have been working on the PET thermoform recycling initiative, the subject of today’s post is life cycle analysis. I will bring you all up to speed with what I have learned about recycling PET thermoforms on Monday; get excited!

Most industry folk are knowledgeable of LCA—it is a technique for assessing the environmental aspects associated with a product over its life cycle. A relatively young technique, LCA became popular in the early nineties. In recent years, LCA thinking has become a key focus of policy making; it has also aided the private sphere in communicating the sustainability aspects of their operations.

Dordan engineers subscribe to COMPASS, which is the SPC’s life-cycle based environmental packaging modeling software. This software allows Dordan to compare the environmental ramifications of different packaging materials and concepts in the design-phase. Check out our COMPASS case studies at: 

The Walmart Scorecard is similar, but different. It can be interpreted as a LCA based tool, but more appropriately, attempts to quantify and convey the metrics associated with a “sustainable package.” Therefore it focuses primarily on package weight, as this informs the environmental performance of the package throughout the supply chain, cube utilization, distance traveled, etc.

I know there is some overlay between these different tools in regard to quantifying the environmental burden a specific packaging type has on the environment; however, I believe that they have different approaches and employ different methodologies as Walmart is looking to reduce packaging overall, while COMPASS is looking to facilitate material and design changes in the early phases of package engineering.

And enter Earthster.

Yesterday I sat in on a conference call with a representative from Earthster and SPC member companies. Here’s what I learned:

Earthster is AWSOME—super futuristic! It is, from what I understand, an open web tool that synergizes data with software in the calculation of sustainability impacts of a given product or process. By understanding the environmental impacts of the products a company buys and sells, companies can help locate “hot spots” throughout their supply chain, thereby facilitating action to alleviate said hot spots. It is important for companies to measure their “footprint” in order to establish a baseline against which to measure sustainable progress.

I know that sounds complicated; let me attempt to break it down.

I manufacture bags of potato chips (too bad Jay’s potato chips are no longer; they were my favorite!). In order to perform an LCIA (life cycle inventory analysis) of manufacturing a bag of potato chips, I must determine my inputs and outputs. My inputs would be things like: electricity, water, potatoes, etc. Using Earthster, I would select the amount of electricity consumed in the production of a bag of potato chips. I could opt for industry averages or use my own company’s energy expenditures per month and divide out the quantity of bags of potato chips produced per month. I would do the same for the water, potatoes, and any other good or service I buy for the manufacturing of a bag of potato chips. I would then enter my outputs or emissions. These can include things like air or water pollution, landfilled materials, etc. I would then use the softare to do some fancy calculations and voila, I have the basis of my LCIA for the production of a bag of potato chips.

Not so simply, but you get the idea.

Most tools currently available, COMPASS being one of them, uses industry averages. Therefore, if I am a thermoformer, when I select the material conversion process, I would be using industry average data for thermoformers. If, for whatever reason, I am a more “green” thermoformer than the industry average (use wind power, zero-waste facility, etc.), than it is in my interest to use to software to publish my own facility’s’ LCIAs. I believe that Earthster is unique in that it allows users to contribute their own LCIAs to the open database, thereby helping to “connect the dots” between data sets, which is often sited as the main problem associated with  LCAs  (lack of primary data).

I am still totally confused about this tool: we were shown a demo and all I know is that you can see where your materials come from geographically (he pulled up a profile of a laptop computer and showed where each component came from, minerals and all); you can see your product surrounded in concentric circles with the first circle representing your primary suppliers, the second circle representing secondary suppliers (perhaps packaging), and so on. Connecting the concentric circles are different lines which, depending on how thick, represent the “hot spots” i.e. methane emissions during pulp production, of your products’ supply chain. And basically anything you want, it appears to be able to show. Earthster also focuses on different environmental metrics i.e. human health (carcinogens, toxicity), ecological systems (eutrophication), global warming (GHG emissions), and others. Depending on what metric you focus on, the hot spots of your supply chain shift.

It is super cool; I don’t think I can say enough. Check out the website:

So this is all good and fine, but what does it mean for us as packaging providers?

I don’t know. I sent the representative from Earthster the following email, looking for some insight in regard to how we would utilize this tool:


My name is Chandler Slavin and I am the Sustainability Coordinator at Dordan Manufacturing, which makes plastic packaging for the consumer electronics industry i.e. clamshells, blisters, trays and components.

First of all, I wanted to thank you for your demo of Earthster for SPC member companies. I found it very interesting and super duper cool! I love the graphics and the open knowledge exchange format.

That being said, I am a little unsure what our role as packaging converters is in regard to utilizing this tool. Would it be of value for us to conduct a life cycle inventory analysis of our own factory’s inputs and outputs and publish the results (i.e. LCI of thermoformer X)? It seems as though this tool will mostly be used by CPGs and retailers as it looks to gauge the “footprint” of a given selling unit, which is obviously the product and package. How does the packaging component fit into the overall metrics of the software? How shall I utilize Earthster and/or how can utilizing Earthster set us apart from our competition?

Thanks for your time.


ANDDDDD a friend of mine is letting me read through his tutorial of SimaPro, which I guess is the most popular LCA tool available for companies to measure their own footprint. It’s a meaty piece; I will let you know if I find anything pertinent.


One Response to “Life cycle assessment FUN!”

  1. casimonek said

    That is really a great post, Chandler. I’m trying to understand more about life cycle calculations and having a description of some of the tools that are out there was certainly helpful. If later on you could tell us what are the pros and cons of the programs you are familiar with it would give great insight to us who are not from the industry. Thanks for the info!

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