Michelle Metzler, Waste Management columnist

Lifecycle thinking changes the way we look at packaging; recyclable materials aren’t always the lowest impact

  • Monday, October 2, 2017 2:40pm
  • Opinion

Reducing waste and protecting the planet today calls for new ways of thinking. To achieve the greatest environmental benefit at a reasonable cost, the sustainability experts at Waste Management adopted lifecycle thinking.

Here’s why it’s important for communities and businesses committed to minimizing their carbon footprints: Lifecycle thinking is a data-driven approach that measures environmental impact throughout the production, use and disposal of an item’s lifetime. This framework helps us make informed decisions about the materials we use and consume every day.

Think about it: The goal of recycling is to reduce environmental impact. By creating new materials out of recycled content, we achieve just that. If we reduce the amount of material used in the first place, we shrink the impact even more. Lifecycle thinking is important because it takes us one step further.

Let’s look at the packaging of Seattle’s favorite beverage from a lifecycle perspective. When choosing coffee in the grocery story, you typically see three types of packages: a metal coffee can, a plastic coffee can and a plastic flexible package. The Environmental Protection Agency compared these types of packages from the perspective of lifecycle thinking. The metal and plastic containers are recyclable while the plastic flexible package is not. However, per ounce of coffee, the plastic flexible package created the least amount of waste, used less energy to produce, less energy to transport (because more packages can fit in one truck) and had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

Now here comes the mind bender: If we are looking to minimize the environmental impact of our coffee, the EPA study shows plastic flexible packages are the clear winner – even though they are not recyclable. That’s right! If your objective is to buy coffee in “the most sustainable” packaging, the best choice isn’t necessarily made from recyclable materials, and it isn’t always recyclable.

OK. Now that we’ve upended what we’ve always thought about recycling, what about the coffee cup? A reusable coffee cup is an obvious choice for the environment. But when you forget your trusty travel mug at home, is a paper or plastic cup a better choice? In this case, lifecycle thinking helps us to determine the environmental impacts of each product, but doesn’t give us a clear winner.

If you want to dive deep into the data, numerous resources exist to help you dissect the impacts of all kinds of products. You’ll find a great deal of research and discussion about packaging innovation and sustainability measurement. In fact, experts at Waste Management are on the cutting edge of this work, partnering with manufacturers to advance technologies that reduce the overall environmental impacts of new and different packaging materials.

For the rest of us, as we notice new types of packaging in the grocery aisle, the key is to remember that life cycle impacts are often linked to the quantity and weight of packaging. That means products with minimal and lightweight packaging are usually the best bets for the environment. And when we can buy products with no packaging, the choice is crystal clear.

Michelle Metzler is Waste Management’s recycling education and outreach manager. Learn more about lifecycle thinking at sustainability.wm.com.

More in Opinion

‘Partisan’ letter highlights the division in the U.S. | Letter

I thank David Stevens for his letter attacking Chris Petzold because it… Continue reading

In defense of Petzold and critical thinking | Letter

I was born in 1947, and yes, my generation has failed the… Continue reading

Global warming is the greatest moral crisis of our time | Letter

What do “freedom” and “patriotism” really mean? In an effort to convince… Continue reading

Newspaper delivery method just isn’t delivering | Letter

I love reading the Valley Record for its local news but I… Continue reading

Don’t blame the Republicans for wanting to protect America | Letter

I shudder when I read about the fear tactics that blame mass… Continue reading

Open letter to Rodne: Correct your voting mistake on public records act | Letter

To Rep. Jay Rodne: I am thoroughly disgusted by your actions on… Continue reading

Tell legislators to eliminate roadblocks to gun law reform | Letter

Another mass school shooting breaks our hearts. Yet Congress refuses to legislate… Continue reading

American Lung Association applauds Larson’s opposition to repeal of Clean Power Plan | Letter

The American Lung Association applauds Snoqualmie Mayor Matthew R. Larson for standing… Continue reading

WNPA responds to legislator’s emergency passage of public disclosure exemption | Opinion

The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association is deeply disturbed by the Legislature’s action… Continue reading