In spring 2013, a team of Carnegie Mellon University students, including Michelle Cong, Melissa Daly, Hao Ming, Haoran Zhang, and Wanbing Zhu, completed a project called Life Cycle Inventory and Cost Analysis of CulinArt Food Packaging Options. Their goal was to determine the most optimal packaging materials for take-out containers on campus. The assessment was based on a life cycle inventory and a life cycle cost analysis for each of the different packaging materials they found in their school dining facilities. In other words, they looked at the different phases in the life of each container to quantify its negative impacts on the environment. Usually, the phases of life encompassed in a full life cycle assessment include raw material extraction, processing of the material, manufacturing of the product, transportation, and disposal of the product.

Their goal was to determine the most optimal packaging materials for take-out containers on campus

Life Cycle Inventory and Cost Analysis of CulinArt Food Packaging Options presents an input- output based streamlined life cycle inventory and cost analysis for the comparison of the different kinds of food packaging options purchased by CulinArt dining locations at Carnegie Mellon University. Primary data collection on campus indicates that six materials are primarily used to produce the food containers used by CulinArt food providers. These materials are polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) plastic, polypropylene (PP) plastic, polystyrene (PS) plastic, corn-based plastic (PLA), paper, and bagasse.

Recycling_Codes

Recycling Codes from Keep Rockport Beautiful

To assess the cumulative environmental impacts of these containers, greenhouse gases and cumulative energy demand were estimated for the life cycle of each material. This life cycle was broken into three major phases: packaging production, transportation, and disposal. Two scenarios were modeled. Case 1 represented the situation that all packaging was disposed of in a landfill. Case 2 represented the situation that all packages were recycled or composted if possible. In addition to the direct environmental impacts, the cost of packaging across the life cycle was also considered. The following flow chart illustrates the potential product lifecycle.

Life Cycle of Food Packaging Products

According to results from the life cycle inventory and life cycle cost analysis of each material, the packaging production phase contributes most to the overall impact, with the transportation phase contributing the least. Therefore, the most significant factor to the reduction of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is driven by the selection of an environmentally-friendly source material. From the results of the study, the group determined that the most appropriate recommendation to CulinArt would be to increase the amount of bagasse containers compared to other packaging options. Bagesse was identified as the most environmentally friendly and cost effective choice. PS plastic containers were found to be the least environmentally friendly option and should be replaced with more sustainable plastics such as PP plastic or corn-based PLA where possible. Adding compost bins to CulinArt dining locations would also effectively reduce the environmental impact of CulinArt food packaging. Implementing the proposed changes to packaging material choices would benefit the environment while reducing costs spent on take-out food containers.

Michelle Cong and Melissa Daly have been working with DECO to help local businesses like Ambiance Boutique and Green Gears create a sustainable strategy to improve their environmental impacts.