For example, many people believe fewer goods should be packaged, on the grounds that, by not using packaging, a certain "footprint" is saved. But if, as a result of eliminating packaging, the goods perish, then all the environmental impact of producing and transporting them will have been for nothing - and the small environmental benefit gained by eliminating packaging will be more than outweighed by the loss of the goods.
The third problem is that it is often impossible to compare like with like. In calculating a footprint, we need to make certain assumptions - predicting the conditions under which certain activities will take place, for instance, or how a product will be used.
Obviously, the reliability of the resulting footprint will depend crucially on how accurate these assumptions are. If one footprint is calculated on the basis of realistic assumptions, while another is based on an overly optimistic or idealized scenario, then clearly any comparison between the two will be meaningless.
For the above reasons, PlasticsEurope agrees with the European Commission`s Joint Research Centre that the carbon footprint should never be used as the sole basis for making purchasing decisions or improving goods or services. If we want to attain sustainable production and consumption, many other aspects need to be taken into account - including not only environmental, but also economic and social dimensions. And on the environmental front, the carbon footprint is only one of many factors that need to be considered.
Decisions about packaging, for instance, mean finding a balance between the
functional benefits of different materials, cost, end-of-life treatment, and a whole host of other factors.
Simply comparing footprints as presently calculated would be hardly better than flipping a coin. PlasticsEurope believes that, with relatively little extra effort and cost, and using much of the same data, a more complete Life Cycle Assessment method could be used, resulting in a measure of environmental impact that is fairer, more comprehensive and more transparent.