Friday, October 2nd, 2009

Shoddy Work: This "Plastics Scorecard" Doesn't Add Up

President's Post

You can ask any of the talented people on my staff and they’ll tell you – I absolutely hate when a job is done shoddily or without being thought completely through. So, when something that is ill-conceived reflects badly upon the plastics industry, I get a little steamed.

A few days ago, a group by the name of Clean Production Action released what they called a “Plastics Scorecard” and incorrectly described it as a “lifecycle-based system for evaluating the environmental and human health performance of a plastic product.” Plastics News wrote about it here.

Now, you have to understand, a proper life-cycle assessment is usually a very specific kind of study that is methodical and thorough – people are specially trained in how to perform them in a meticulous way that takes into account many variables. Almost by definition, a life-cycle assessment (LCA) must start at the very beginning and be followed to the very end.

Needless to say, I strongly disagree with this group’s “Plastics Scorecard.” It is severely flawed in that it does not consider every life-cycle component – which is absolutely necessary when using a model based on a life-cycle assessment. My technical staff has reviewed what Clean Production Action has come up with and quickly came to the conclusion that the criteria for their scorecard have been selectively chosen and are not comprehensive.

Certainly when compared with other LCA projects that our staff has worked on, this tool is lacking and serves as a reminder that data can be significantly skewed depending on what is selected as the start and end points of the cycle. The Clean Production Action group has taken exactly this type of unscientific approach. The sample grades that have been assigned to products appear arbitrary – again, without references or sound science to back up the assumptions made.

I’d be interested to know what others think.


5 Responses to “Shoddy Work: This "Plastics Scorecard" Doesn't Add Up”

  1. Life-cycle assessments are becoming more and more important as consumers pay attention to the eco impact of packaging etc.

    This is a great blog and, P.S. I voted for you on the BloggersChoice awards and wondered if you would like to vote for us in the Best Eco Education category, we are at;

  2. The Oct 1 ACC press release seemed to completely mis-characterize the Plastics Scorecard, arguing that “plastic products generally rate very favorably compared to alternatives” when the Scorecard Introduction clearly says “It is important to note that the Plastics Scorecard is designed to assess individual plastic materials and compare that assessment to other plastics; it is not designed to compare plastics to other materials such as aluminum, wood or glass.”

    My impression is that the Scorecard is trying to highlight the fact that some types of plastic are more damaging to the environment than others, so it would be desirable to choose the plastic that is more sustainable if all other performance requirements are met. If this is the scope of analysis, it may be justifiable to omit certain lifecycle stages if they are unlikely to impact the final outcome (i.e. trucking a batch of plastic from point A to point B is going to have the same impact regardless of what type of plastic is in the truck). LCA is not a precise science, it will involve some value judgment by the practitioner, ideally incorporating expert input. I hope that SPI’s technical experts will forward their comments to Clean Production Action so that the next revision of the Scorecard will be more accurate.

  3. The question of life cycle analysis of any resin or product is incredibly complex and by design need to be filled with non-scientific assumptions that it is taking Walmart several years and tremendous resources to evaluate and rate their packaging materials of choice. Their work will obviously remain a work in process for years to come. So for one or two groups to try to undertake this task on their own would to me be the equivalent of crossing the Atlantic in a kayak. Nonetheless it once again highlights consumer’s desire for information on plastics, particularly in packaging.

    It would seem that this is an opportunity for the resin manufacturers to join together under the guidance of one non-biased Industry group such as SPI to create an industry guidance document that is based on the science of the polymers, design capabilities, (such as ability to light weight), actual and potential re-use and recycling rates here in Canada and the EU along with actual and perceived end of life scenarios.

    The Plastic’s Industry needs to communicate solid definable information to the public be it good, bad or indifferent, and in order to achieve that goal it is going to require substantial depths of resources from the resin manufacturing community. But at the end of the day it will always be better to have information based on fact in the hands of the consumer.

  4. I am pleased to see the responses and interest in the President’s blog post as life-cycle assessments (LCAs) are a very hot topic. SPI supports collaboration between industry, government, NGOs and academia, and welcomes any opportunity to discuss the next revision of the scorecard so that it will be more accurate. Based on our experience at SPI, whether working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on LCAs or in participating in projects that follow ISO 14040 (i.e., “Environmental management — Life cycle assessment — Principles and Framework” standard which describes the principles and framework for life cycle assessments), we have learned that one needs to consider all life-cycle stages when doing a LCA. Although someone may think that a certain lifecycle stage is unlikely to impact the final outcome, without comprehensive information, you can’t draw accurate conclusions. And isn’t the point to make sure that people have the right information to make the right choices? For instance, you would never conduct an LCA without addressing the impact of transportation at the start even if you hypothesized the impact was minimal (which it often is not). To assume that all products are transported the exact same distance to (for example) a production manufacturing facility or to a processing site or to a use site, etc. is flawed and will give you flawed results.

  5. SPI (or any other interested party) has the opportunity to submit comments to the developers of the Plastics Scorecard right here