LCA Study Highlights Environmental Benefits of EPS Cooler Boxes

A detailed life cycle analy­sis (LCA) has com­pared the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of small box­es made from card­board and expand­ed poly­styrene (EPS). The study shows that card­board cool­er box­es are not nec­es­sar­i­ly bet­ter for the envi­ron­ment than EPS cool­er box­es. The find­ings indi­cate that while both types of box­es have an almost sim­i­lar car­bon foot­print, EPS cool­er box­es gen­er­al­ly have a low­er over­all envi­ron­men­tal impact, espe­cial­ly in areas like water emis­sions. Pub­lished in May 2024, this study was con­duct­ed by our mem­ber Sty­benex, the Dutch EPS Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion, thus rein­forc­ing the Euro­pean EPS Industry’s com­mit­ment to advanc­ing sus­tain­able prac­tices with­in the Euro­pean Union.


The Environmental Performance of EPS Cooler Boxes

The study assessed the envi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance of two card­board cool­er box­es, the “Paper­cool­er” and the “Eco­Cool­er, against their EPS equiv­a­lents. The “Paper­cool­er” is a ful­ly card­board cool­er box, while the “Eco­Cool­er” fea­tures card­board walls filled with cel­lu­lose insu­la­tion mate­r­i­al. Both types of box­es were eval­u­at­ed for var­i­ous envi­ron­men­tal impacts, includ­ing car­bon emis­sions, water tox­i­c­i­ty, and over­all eco­log­i­cal footprint.

EPS cool­er box­es are often per­ceived neg­a­tive­ly due to their plas­tic com­po­si­tion. How­ev­er, this study reveals that EPS, a light­weight and durable mate­r­i­al, offers sig­nif­i­cant envi­ron­men­tal advan­tages when its entire life­cy­cle is con­sid­ered. The analy­sis spanned from the pro­duc­tion phase to dis­pos­al, tak­ing into account fac­tors like raw mate­r­i­al extrac­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing process­es, trans­porta­tion, and end-of-life treatment.


Environmental Footprint: Methodology and Findings

Using the Prod­uct Envi­ron­men­tal Foot­print (PEF) method, which mea­sures the envi­ron­men­tal impact of prod­ucts through­out their entire life cycle, the study found that the “Paper­cool­er” and “Eco­Cool­er” have envi­ron­men­tal foot­prints that are 191% and 55% larg­er, respec­tive­ly, than EPS cool­er box­es. This dif­fer­ence becomes even more sig­nif­i­cant when look­ing at spe­cif­ic envi­ron­men­tal impacts.

The PEF method­ol­o­gy pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive assess­ment, con­sid­er­ing mul­ti­ple impact cat­e­gories such as green­house gas emis­sions, resource deple­tion, water use, and bio­di­ver­si­ty loss. By adopt­ing this robust frame­work, the study ensures that all sig­nif­i­cant envi­ron­men­tal aspects are cov­ered, offer­ing a holis­tic view of the prod­ucts’ eco­log­i­cal impacts.


Specific Environmental Impacts: A Closer Look

The impact on fresh­wa­ter organ­isms from tox­ic sub­stances released into the envi­ron­ment is 201 times greater for the Paper­cool­er and 96 times greater for the Eco­Cool­er com­pared to EPS box­es. This find­ing is cru­cial as it high­lights the eco­log­i­cal con­se­quences of using mate­ri­als that con­tribute heav­i­ly to water pol­lu­tion. Addi­tion­al­ly, the poten­tial for glob­al warm­ing due to land use changes is 75 times greater for the Paper­cool­er and 38 times greater for the Eco­Cool­er than for their EPS equivalents.

The study also exam­ined the con­tri­bu­tion of both types of cool­er box­es to cli­mate change through dif­fer­ent mech­a­nisms. For instance, the impact of biobased green­house gas emis­sions from card­board was found to be 43.2 times greater than that from the EPS equiv­a­lent. This is a sig­nif­i­cant find­ing, as it chal­lenges the com­mon assump­tion that biobased mate­ri­als are inher­ent­ly more sustainable.

Anoth­er crit­i­cal aspect is the deple­tion of abi­ot­ic resources, such as fos­sil fuels. EPS cool­er box­es were found to have a 1.33 times low­er impact on fos­sil fuel deple­tion com­pared to card­board box­es. This low­er resource deple­tion rate fur­ther under­scores the envi­ron­men­tal effi­cien­cy of EPS as a pack­ag­ing material.


Advocating for Sustainable EPS Solutions

The find­ings from this LCA study con­duct­ed by our mem­ber Sty­benex pro­vide essen­tial insights into the excel­lent envi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance of EPS. The study demon­strates that EPS cool­er box­es per­form envi­ron­men­tal­ly well com­pared to oth­er cool­er box­es, includ­ing reduced con­tri­bu­tions to fresh­wa­ter tox­i­c­i­ty and glob­al warm­ing potential.

These results chal­lenge the com­mon belief that card­board is more sus­tain­able. They align with oth­er research show­ing that replac­ing plas­tic pack­ag­ing with paper is not always the best sus­tain­able solu­tion. EPS cool­er box­es have up to 191% low­er envi­ron­men­tal foot­prints in some cat­e­gories, high­light­ing EPS as a sus­tain­able choice.

These insights under­score the impor­tance of con­sid­er­ing the full life­cy­cle of pack­ag­ing mate­ri­als. They rein­force the envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits of EPS, sup­port­ing its role in achiev­ing the EU’s cli­mate and envi­ron­men­tal goals. EUMEPS and its mem­bers con­tin­ue to advo­cate for the recog­ni­tion of EPS as a key mate­r­i­al in sus­tain­able pack­ag­ing practices.


EUMEPS active­ly par­tic­i­pates in reg­u­la­to­ry frame­works such as the Green Deal, the Euro­pean Per­for­mance of Build­ings Direc­tive, the Pack­ag­ing and Pack­ag­ing Waste Reg­u­la­tion, and the Con­struc­tion Prod­ucts Reg­u­la­tion. Our involve­ment in these frame­works ensures that the ben­e­fits of EPS are recog­nised in pol­i­cy deci­sions, sup­port­ing its con­tin­ued use and devel­op­ment in var­i­ous applications.

Find­ings result­ing from LCA are cru­cial for mak­ing informed deci­sions about pack­ag­ing mate­ri­als in a sus­tain­abil­i­ty-focused con­text. EUMEPS, rep­re­sent­ing the entire EPS val­ue chain, is ded­i­cat­ed to meet­ing EU envi­ron­men­tal goals and pro­mot­ing EPS as a smart choice for pack­ag­ing and insu­la­tion, by demon­strat­ing EPS as a sus­tain­able, inno­v­a­tive mate­r­i­al essen­tial for achiev­ing the EU’s envi­ron­men­tal objectives.

  • If you have any ques­tions regard­ing this com­par­a­tive LCA study, please email your queries tor.goes@stybenex.nlr.goes@stybenex.nll.
AuthorIngrid Morin