Assessing Sustainable Packaging through Life Cycle Analysis

by Chandler Slavin, Sustainability Coordinator, Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc.

Sustainability is a concept commonly defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, March 1987). Since the early nineties, “sustainability” as concept has been integrated into how we understand different processes of production and consumption, products and services.

As the Sustainability Coordinator for a medium-sized family-owned and -operated plastic thermoforming company, I believe my employment speaks to the extent to which “sustainability” has percolated industry. By taking an informed, systems-based approach to sustainability, I believe plastic processors can develop truly sustainable packaging options for their customers. What follows is a discussion of some of the tools, materials and resources available to those that wish to embark on the journey towards sustainable packaging. It is important to understand, however, that there is no “silver bullet” when discussing sustainability; compromise is required whenever assessing how certain materials or processes will inform the overall environmental and economic performance of a given product or service.

Assessing Environmental Profiles

Life cycle analysis is a popular approach to understanding the environmental requirements of different products and services. By considering the entire life cycle of product – from material extraction to production, distribution and end of life – one can begin to understand its sustainability profile. This type of assessment provides quantified scientific data, which can be used to facilitate sustainability improvements across the supply chain. Discussion of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s life-cycle-based comparative packaging assessment software COMPASS will make clear the importance of LCA and how such intelligence can aid in sustainability improvements in packaging systems.

COMPASS is a design-phase web application that provides comparative environmental profiles of packaging alternatives based on life cycle assessment metrics and design attributes. Created by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) – an industry-working group dedicated to a more environmentally robust vision for packaging – this tool provides the environmental data needed to make informed packaging design decisions early in the developmental process. COMPASS assesses packages on resource consumption (fossil fuel, water, biotic resource and mineral), emissions (greenhouse gas, human impacts, aquatic toxicity and eutrophication) and attributes such as material health, recycled or virgin content, sourcing and solid waste.

Dordan began its subscription to COMPASS in 2010 in response to inquiries from clients into the sustainability of one material vs. another, one design vs. another, etc. Because COMPASS contains life cycle impact assessment data (LCIA) from raw material sourcing/extraction, packaging material manufacture, conversion, distribution and end of life, the COMPASS assessment details the life cycle impacts of different packaging systems in a comparative format; this allows the practitioner to understand the environmental performance of package A vs. package B, which allows for informed design decisions and results in quantified marketing claims.

To utilize COMPASS, one needs the following information: the weight of the various packaging material constituents of the primary and secondary packaging for both the existing and proposed packaging; the conversion process (i.e. calendaring with paper cutting vs. thermoforming); and the data set (i.e. US vs. EU vs. CA -end of life data is geographically specific). COMPASS data output consists of colored bar graphs corresponding to the existing and proposed designs, indicating the emissions generated and resources consumed as listed above.

COMPASS was created by stakeholders in industry, academia, NGOs and environmental organizations and funded in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The LCIA data is taken from the two public life cycle databases available, the US Life Cycle Inventory Database and Ecoinvent, a Swiss life cycle database. This tool should be incorporated into the package development process in order to facilitate more sustainable designs that allow for informed environmental marketing claims. Examples of claims Dordan has made as result of COMPASS utilization includes: “25 percent reduction in GHG equivalents emitted throughout life cycle when compared with previous package” or “40 percent reduction in biotic, mineral and water resources consumed when compared with previous package.”

Investing in Sustainability Education and Research

In addition to investing in a life-cycle-based systems approach to packaging sustainability as manifest through subscription to COMPASS, it is important to invest in industry-specific sustainability R&D. Because each industry is unique in its demands and applications, it is difficult to speculate on what type of sustainability service will resonate best with each demographic. As thin-gauge thermoformers, Dordan found that “bio-plastics” were something in need of investigation because of the feedstock/end of life sustainability implications. By being proactive and sampling each available bio-based/biodegradable/compostable resin as it came to market, Dordan was able to provide its clients with a variety of options that may aid in the attainment of their sustainable packaging goals. Resins sampled included PLA, PLA & Starch, Cellulous Acetate, PHA, TerraPET and Aeris InCycle. A comparative spec sheet detailing each resin’s physical properties, environmental profiles and cost as understood through density and yield was provided, alongside the thermoformed samples, allowing for a holistic representation of this new class of resins.

Don’t let your efforts stop with industry-specific sustainability R&D. Sustainability is a complicated concept and one that requires full time investigation and participation. In order for plastics processors to capitalize on packaging sustainability in the context of environmental and economic savings, it is helpful to divert resources to sustainability education. Dordan began its sustainability education by joining the SPC, which offered a variety of research crucial to discussions of sustainability.

In joining an industry alliance dedicated to developing more sustainable packaging systems, Dordan was introduced to all the issues that concerned not only the thermoforming but also the larger packaging industry; in doing so, it illuminated the obstacles faced and the opportunities available. Now, Dordan is proud to be participating in the ever-evolving dialogue around sustainable packaging. Only through education, supply chain collaboration and industry initiatives can we begin to develop truly sustainable packaging systems that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Chandler Slavin is the Sustainability Coordinator of third-generation family-owned and operated custom thermoforming company, Dordan Manufacturing Inc. Slavin served as the co-lead of Walmart Canada’s PET Subcommittee of the Material Optimization Committee and has spoken at industry events on her research on recycling thermoformed containers. Slavin is the author of, a high-trafficked blog on packaging and sustainability, and contributes blog content to SupplierHub, the closed-portal site for private label suppliers to Walmart. Dordan Manufacturing is headquartered in Woodstock, IL, and provides custom thermoformed packaging solutions to a variety of consumer goods industries. Visit for more information.