Purpose: Due to the urgency and the magnitude of the environmental problems caused by food supply chains, it is important that the recommendations for packaging improvements given in life cycle assessment (LCA) studies of food rest on a balanced consideration of all relevant environmental impacts of packaging. The purpose of this article is to analyse the extent to which food
LCAs include the indirect environmental impact of packaging in parallel to its direct impact. While the direct environmental impact of food packaging is the impact caused by packaging materials’ production and end-of-life, its indirect environmental impact is caused by its influence on the food product’s life cycle, e.g. by its influence on food waste and on logistical efficiency.
Methods: The article presents a review of 32 food LCAs published in peer-reviewed scientific journals over the last decade. The steps of the food product’s life cycle that contribute to the direct and indirect environmental impacts of packaging provide the overall structure of the analytical framework used for the review. Three aspects in the selected food LCAs were analysed: (1) the defined scope of the LCAs, (2) the sensitivity and/or scenario analyses and (3) the conclusions and recommendations.
Results and discussion: While in packaging LCA literature, there is a trend towards a more systematic consideration of the indirect environmental impact of packaging, it is unclear how food LCAs handle this aspect. The results of the review show that the choices regarding scope and sensitivities/scenarios made in food LCAs and their conclusions about packaging focus on the direct environmental impact of packaging. While it is clear that not all food LCAs need to analyse packaging in detail, this article identifies opportunities to increase the validity of packaging-related conclusions in food LCAs and provides specific
recommendations for packaging-related food LCA methodology.
Conclusions: Overall, we conclude that the indirect environmental impact of packaging is insufficiently considered in current food LCA practice. Based on these results, this article calls for a more systematic consideration of the indirect environmental impact of packaging in future food LCAs. In addition, it identifies a need for more packaging research that can provide the empirical data
that many food LCA practitioners currently lack. In particular, LCA practitioners would benefit if there were more knowledge and data available about the influence of certain packaging characteristics (e.g. shape, weight and type of material) on consumer behaviour.
- Transportteknik och logistik