Environmental experts recognize life-cycle assessment (LCA) as an analytical framework with potential wide application for inventorying and improving the resource consumption, energy use and emissions associated with various products and services. But observers these days could be forgiven for believing that LCA was developed only for one cynical purpose: To score points in the ongoing political debate over whether beverage containers should be collected for reuse and recycling via municipal curbside systems or through separate deposit-return programs.
A disturbing recent example reveals how “LCA” is being co-opted into little more than a public relations gimmick rather than remaining a useful tool for waste management policymaking. It comes to us courtesy of the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) and Corporations Supporting Recycling (CSR). These groups funded the so-called Integrated Solid Waste Management Tools (ISWMT) for Measuring The Environmental Performance of Waste Management Systems — a tool with which “…waste managers can select the preferred [waste management] options based on site-specific environmental, economic and social consideration.”
In reality the ISWMT’s purpose is largely political. Its alleged “life-cycle” approach is little more than a smokescreen to “environmentally” validate industry’s preferred waste-management system (i.e., the one in which taxpayers fund municipal curbside collection and processing and industry keeps on generating packaging waste with few consequences to itself).
Background and the FTC
The history of LCA should get a chuckle out of any fan of irony in history.
LCA was originally developed on behalf of the soft-drink industry in the late 1960s and early ’70s to provide support for the contention that refillable containers were “better” for the environment.
At that time, the U.S. soft-drink industry was besieged by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for what was widely perceived as an anti-competitive practice — specifically, its habit of assigning exclusive marketing territories to franchise bottlers. It was alleged that this approach eliminated intra-brand competition (e.g., Coca-Cola vs. Coca-Cola) within a given region. This “fixed the price” for a given soft-drink brand within that region.
The soft-drink industry’s argument (made largely through its huge network of franchise bottlers) went something like this: The independent bottlers should be given a special exemption from federal trade laws in order support their existence as small “mom-and-pop” operations that employed thousands of people. Present in virtually every community in the U.S., the bottlers claimed that the exclusive territories allowed them to cost-effectively recover their container “floats” — the backbone of the refilling system. They claimed that competition between bottlers of the same brand would cause their expensive floats to become hopelessly intermixed.
A key extension to this argument, and one that enjoyed plenty of support from detailed “systems analysis” (i.e., LCA) was the contention that refillable containers were better for the environment. In this case a vote for an FTC exemption was a vote for environmental protection. The small business, pro-environment arguments were irresistible to congressional conservatives and liberals alike. With the passage of the Soft Drink Inter-brand Competition Act of 1980, soft-drink producers and their franchise bottlers were given the right to establish and operate regional bottling monopolies.
But, interestingly, the legislation led to precisely the opposite of what the legislators intended. In fact, it turned out that they had been snookered by big business .
Ominously, at the same time as they extolled the virtues of refillable containers, producers like Coke and Pepsi were busy introducing disposable plastic bottles and metal cans to the marketplace. This prompted the U.S. Congress to issue a House Report in which it said new rules were needed to “halt trends that might otherwise lead to the…disappearance of the refillable bottle.”
But, ironically, the very Soft Drink Inter-brand Competition Act that was supposed to protect independent bottlers and refillable bottles prevented the government from saving them. The rules provided that if a franchise bottler was purchased, its exclusive market rights were transferred to the purchaser. With almost unseemly haste the large soft-drink producers and their affiliates bought up thousands of small bottling franchises and shut them down. They thereby expanded their market share and consolidated production into mammoth, centralized canning and bottling operations.
However, there was a catch. The North American soft-drink industry ran into resistance from environmentalists and legislators who objected to the pop-bottle litter and the huge volume of non-refillable beverage containers that began to flood municipal waste collection and disposal systems.
Once again LCA came to the soft-drink industry’s rescue; this time to demonstrate that new, technologically-advanced, lightweight, user-friendly and unbreakable disposable containers were “better” for the environment than heavy, inconvenient, archaic and dangerous glass refillable bottles. (The new throwaways were euphemistically referred to as “recyclable” though there was no comprehensive recycling at the time.)
To date there are more than 40 comparative LCAs on beverage containers. Unfortunately for the soft-drink industry the overwhelming majority of these studies (at least those undertaken with any rigor) have validated the intuitively simple concept of refillables. Repeatedly returning, washing and refilling a refillable glass or lightweight PET bottle is generally less burdensome to the environment than conventional recycling or disposal (in terms of energy and natural resource use, air and water emissions, and solid waste).
While the life-cycle merits of refillable containers are fairly well established, the political and marketplace reality is that refillable containers are unlikely to make a broad resurgence.
End of story? Absolutely not.
Perhaps the only things the soft-drink industry, and the grocers who sell its products, find more objectionable than refillable containers are the cost-internalizing deposit-refund systems that were traditionally used to recover them. Accepted as the most cost-effective way to recover beverage containers, deposit-refund systems (sometimes called “bottle bills”) continue to be proposed in jurisdictions across North America and Europe. Interestingly, the issue often surfaces in places with long-standing curbside collection programs when the limitations and ever-increasing costs of handling beverage containers this way become clearly understood (See “New markets for green glass” in Industry News.)
Of note, the most environmentally burdensome portion of the waste stream is beverage containers; kilogram-for-kilogram they offer the largest environmental “bang-for-the-buck” in terms of recovery. (See “Energy to Waste?” in the April/May 2000 edition.)
“Its alleged ‘life-cycle’ approach is little more than a smoke-screen.”
This fact leads to an inevitable comparison between curbside collection and deposit-refund programs. In order to avoid such comparisons and obfuscate the discussion, detractors of deposit-refund systems would divert our attention to “…strategies that can potentially improve the environmental performance of the waste management system” and attempt to limit the scope of what may be considered.
For this reason, the assumptions behind the seemingly innocuous LCA-based Integrated Solid Waste Management Tools (ISWMT) from EPIC and CSR deserve close examination. Even without assessing the underlying data (which are not available for review) or scrutinizing the model’s anonymous “peer review” one is immediately struck by a fundamental flaw. The ISWMT is based on the underlying premise that municipal collection and processing (recycling, incine
ration, composting, landfill, etc.) are the only way to deal with solid waste. Accordingly, the ISWMT manual defines the model’s scope as the “life-cycle of a waste,” or more elaborately, “when a material is discarded into the waste stream and ends when the waste material has either been converted into a resource (such as recycled material or recovered energy) or, when it has been finally disposed.”
Such an approach ignores all upstream life-cycle considerations and precludes important questions such as, what if the waste package was reduced or reused and never became a waste in the first place? What are the comparative energy and emissions profiles of alternative recovery systems for different products and materials? What if problematic products (such as those made of glass, PET and LDPE) were designed differently or made from different materials?
“Once again LCA came to the soft-drink industry’s rescue.”
Such questions are far more meaningful in terms of decision-making to avoid energy consumption, emissions, solid waste and financial cost. However, these questions relate specifically to decisions that producers would have to make further up the product life-cycle, and that’s not what the ISWMT sponsors wanted. Hence its limited scope.
The ISWMT is analogous to those overhead control panels above passenger seats on commercial airliners. While passengers can adjust the airflow, reading lights and headphone volume, they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that they are flying the plane. In the case of solid waste in Canada, many crucial controls are in the hands of product and packaging producers — all their customers can do is go along for the ride and watch the in-flight reruns of EPIC tales.
Usman Valiante is principal of General Science Works, based in Toronto, Ontario.