Corrugated Packaging Alliance Critical of Updated IFCO RPC Life Cycle Assessment But Misses the Mark

The Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA) has come back swinging in response to the new Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) published by IFCO, a provider of reusable plastic containers (RPCs). CPA states curiously that IFCO “attempts to discredit the corrugated packaging industry for having the highest recovery rate of any packaging system in America.”  More accurately, the LCA states that RPCs offer a more sustainable choice in spite of the admirable recycling rate achieved by corrugated. This outcome holds true because a lot of the negative environmental impact is generated during container production rather than at container end-of-life and that corrugated containers need to be produced each use, rather than reused over 39 times on average, as is the case with RPCs. The requirement for repeated container manufacturing and related environmental impacts associated with it are really where we should be looking. By focusing on the recycling rate, we are missing the point of the LCA.

The CPA release further states that the “LCA posits that since corrugated boxes for produce only have an average recycled content of 38.4 percent, excess recovered fiber collected for recycling displaces production of virgin fiber, which results in apparently higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for corrugated.” It is worth noting that CPA now seems to be interested in backtracking from this number, in spite of the fact that it is the most recent one they have published.

In the LCA, an assumption of a 38.4% recycled fiber content is used for corrugated produce container content, the most recent number published by CPA.

“This assumption and LCA methodology used by IFCO mischaracterizes the complexities of a balanced fiber production system,” said Dennis Colley, Executive Director of the Corrugated Packaging Alliance, while not seeming to dispute the 38.4% recycling rate. “The corrugated packaging industry uses both virgin and recovered fiber for optimal and maximum production – and a high level of recycling should never be discounted.”

CPA lists its undisputed successes regarding old corrugated recovery. “Recovery of old corrugated containers reached a record 92.9% in 2015. Around the country, 95% of Americans have access to community-based curbside and/or drop-off corrugated recycling programs.” These are terrific accomplishments, but they are not relevant to the comparison of RPCs with
NDCs or DRCs for fresh produce as undertaken in the LCA.

The CPA response lists other impressive statistics worth repeating, but again, they are off the mark with respect to successfully criticizing the LCA:

  • Nearly 52% of the recovered fiber collected for recycling in the U.S. is used to make containerboard for more boxes
  • 11.5 percent is used to make boxboard for primary packaging like cereal boxes
  • More than 32% is exported to other parts of the world where virgin fiber is scarce, and the remainder goes to other products like tissue and printing and writing papers.
  • More than twice as much paper and paper-based packaging is recycled than is sent to landfills.

The IFCO LCA, “Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable Plastic Containers and Display- and Non-Display Ready Corrugated Containers Used for Fresh Produce Applications,” was conducted by Franklin and Associates and evaluated three types of containers, RPCs, Display and Non-Display Corrugated Containers across ten large-volume produce commodities.

To better understand the corrugated position on sustainability, visit www.corrugated.org.