To capacitate product evolution in line with its climate targets and provide also manufacturers with sustainability data, GEA is generating hard numbers on the environmental impact of its machines conducting so-called product life-cycle assessments (LCA). As a next step, LCAs will be integrated into the design process for all new products to optimize both sustainability and transparency for customers. GEA was among the first in the industry to conduct this LCA on a beverage filling system.

On the way to achieving its climate target of net-zero emissions by 2040, GEA will be focusing on reducing its Scope 3 emissions along the value chain, as these account for the largest share of the company’s CO2e emissions. As a first step, GEA plans to reduce Scope 3 emissions by 18% by 2030 over 2019 levels. Key to this will be shrinking the carbon footprint of its machines during the use phase. This applies to engineering and manufacturing as a whole, which make a major contribution on the road to Net Zero with today's technologies and future innovations. If we can continuously improve the operating efficiency of equipment, it will help customers save thermal energy, electricity and resources.

A first step on this journey is to ensure transparency: “We’ve seen a growing number of requests from customers for detailed information on the environmental impact of GEA equipment – not only in the use phase, but over the entire lifetime of the product,” says Donato De Dominicis, Senior Vice President for GEA’s Filling and Packaging based in Sala Baganza, Italy. As first filling systems provider, GEA initiated a cooperation with the University of Parma in May 2021. The aim was to provide customers with the consumption numbers of two of GEA’s most important aseptic filling systems and to jumpstart progress towards GEA’s own ambitious climate targets. “We wanted a hard look at the numbers – a detailed understanding of the footprint of our filling systems. And a LCA is the most comprehensive framework for measuring environmental impact,” says Paolo Abelli, R&D Director Filling and Packaging, GEA. Of course, performing an LCA in compliance with the leading international standards is no small feat. Doing it right means strict compliance with ISO 14040 series standards as well as rules specific to each industry and machine type. “The LCA is based on a highly bureaucratic process, you can call it a science in itself, which is why GEA sought out external expertise to get started”, adds Abelli.

Dr. Nadine Sterley, Chief Sustainability Officer, GEA
Dr. Nadine Sterley, Chief Sustainability Officer, GEA

“LCA is a powerful tool for identifying footprint hot spots, prioritizing sustainability improvements in our design process, and enhancing transparency for our customers.” Dr. Nadine Sterley, Chief Sustainability Officer, GEA

Learning the LCA ropes with CIPACK

GEA turned to the University of Parma’s Interdepartmental Center for Packaging (CIPACK), which specializes in basic and applied research in the field of packaging and bottling, particularly in pharmaceutical and food applications. Barbara Bricoli, R&D Innovation Manager, GEA Filling and Packaging, explains: “The University of Parma supported us in the modality for data collection according to the ‘Beverage and Filling’ product category rules (PCR) and rules for submitting data to the software.” For the LCA, Parma researchers worked with one of the leading impact assessment programs, which complies with the environmental product declaration (EPD) reporting format.

The LCA assessed GEA’s two main aseptic blowing-filling systems: the Aseptic Blow Fill system ABF 2.0, featuring dry sterilization of the preform, and the ECOSpin2 Zero, with wet sterilization of the bottle. “These are large, complex machines with multiple modules, including blowers, fillers, ovens and many other components,” explains Bricoli. “The LCA considered each of these separately and calculated consumption for each part, which made for a precise analysis overall.”

Starting point: energy and resource consumption in the use phase

The scope of the LCA covered the three main phases of the product life cycle for each unit:

  • Production of the machine (including raw materials extraction)
  • Use phase (consumption during operation, cleaning and sterilizing cycles)
  • Final disposal (after a 15-year lifespan)

For each of these phases, the LCA determined the environmental impact of the machines in seven different impact categories1:

  • Acidification: the acidification of water, soil and air is due to acidifying substances, such as nitric acid, sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid, hydrogen, phosphoric acid, etc., in kg SO2 eq)
  • Eutrophication: the term indicates the excessive growth of plant organisms that modify the ecological balance of the aquatic environment, in kg PO4
  • Global warming: the increase in the Earth's average temperature due to human activities that release greenhouse gases, such as CO2, into the atmosphere. These gases, remaining trapped in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, act as a barrier to solar radiation reflected from the earth's surface, whose energy is converted into heat. This causes the global average temperature to rise, in kg CO2 eq
  • Photochemical oxidation: this phenomenon is due to nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons, which, due to the effect of the photochemical reactions induced by the sun's rays, lead to the oxidation of nitrogen monoxide (NO), which becomes nitrogen (NO2), and the formation of ozone (O3) and other chemical compounds with toxic effects on the ecosystem and human health, in kg NMVOC (Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds).
  • Abiotic depletion, elements: this category refers to the exhaustion of elements, such as metals, and the unit of measurement is kg Sb eq.
  • Abiotic depletion, fossil fuels: the exhaustion of fossil fuels, in MJ.
  • Water scarcity: in m3 eq.
  • Ozone layer depletion: thinning of the ozone layer, impact category is optional, but was considered in the analysis, in kg CFC-11 eq.

“We provided the primary data for the study, including an inventory analysis of all machine components and materials as well as data on consumption during the use phase,” explains Bricoli. “The end-of-life impact was calculated based on a machine disposal scenario using European disposal data.”

ABF impact during the life cycle (referred to the functional unit)

The LCA found that 95% of the environmental impact of the machines on average across all impact categories is due to energy and resource consumption during the use phase. Only in one impact category – abiotic depletion of elements – did the raw materials extraction and production phase have an impact at 46% of more than a few percentage points. “Given the large amount of steel used to manufacture the machines, it was somewhat surprising to find that the materials used in manufacturing have on average an impact less than 4% of the total,” says Bricoli. “This makes the use-phase assessment all the more interesting, because this is clearly where we and our customers have the greatest leverage to reduce the environmental impact of our filling machines going forward.”

95% of the environmental impact of the machines on average across all impact categories is due to energy and resource consumption during the use phase. Insight of LCA by GEA Filling & Packaging

Technical adjustments reduce 30% of CO₂e

Digging deeper into the use phase, the study found that – across almost all impact categories – three forms of resource consumption had the largest impact: electrical power, process steam and compressed air. In terms of global warming, these three consumptions alone account for 76% of the total CO2e emissions of the ABF 2.0. “Given GEA’s focus on Scope 3 emissions, CO2e emissions is our priority action area – and the results of the LCA provide a pretty clear map on how to move forward most effectively,” says Bricoli.

ABF impact during production

As a first step, the LCA helped GEA identify and implement three quick wins to further reduce the climate footprint of its filling systems.

  • By recovering additional condensate, they lowered process steam requirements during the use phase, thus decreasing electricity consumption in the heating process.
  • By recirculating air from the blower, they further reduced both compressed air and electric power requirements.
  • Customers can now opt to use microfiltration instead of UHT to produce sterile water, which again reduces the electric power needed to heat water in the machine.

“Taken together, these three measures result in a 30% reduction of CO2 emissions during the use phase of the machine,” says Paolo Abelli. “Some customers will continue to prefer the convenience of UHT over microfiltration, but the important thing here is the transparency that we achieve with the LCA – and that our customers are empowered now to make decisions based on real numbers.”

For the R&D team at GEA, the clarity provided by the LCA has accelerated the further development of their machines. 

“This first LCA has allowed us to make some specific adjustments to two of our filling systems to achieve significant improvements in CO2e, but this is really just the beginning,” Barbara Bricoli, R&D Innovation Manager, GEA Filling and Packaging

“We are currently exploring additional ways to recover energy, e.g. from the blower oven or other heating processes. And we’ve initiated collaboration with other GEA units to further enhance electrical energy recovery in our system. The hard numbers we have from the LCA really help focus and align this collaborative work within GEA.”

Teach a man to fish

As a result of its first collaboration with the University of Parma, GEA now has the tools and know-how to perform additional LCAs for other products in its portfolio. “There’s growing interest from all sides – from end consumers, GEA customers, suppliers and of course within GEA – to be able to quantify the environmental impact of manufacturing processes and end products so that we can all make informed decisions about what to buy or, in our case, how to design the most efficient and sustainable machines,” says Jannik Desel, Project Manager Sustainability at GEA. “So far, we’ve been able to provide rough estimates on the environmental footprint of our machines, but having LCA capability will allow us to achieve much more granular analysis and precise, actionable numbers on our machines.”

Desel’s current tool provides a graphical overview of emissions for a given product to quickly identify the biggest contributors to global warming – among other impact categories – and prioritize steps to improve environmental performance. But like his R&D colleague Bricoli, he is quick to point out that this is just the start. “In terms of achieving a clear and accurate picture of environmental footprints on the supplier side, things are in their infancy,” says Desel. “We’ve relied a lot on industry averages so far, but we want to move fast to improve on this.”

GEA has initiated collaborations with suppliers to dive deeper into the CO2 footprint of their equipment and found that having LCA capability helps steer this process. “Companies all along the supply chain are starting to take action on understanding and reducing their environmental footprint, but you can also see that it’s a new area of endeavor, so there’s a certain lack of experience and clarity on how to go about it,” says Desel. 

“Having LCA capability allows us to take the lead with customers or suppliers and help guide this collaborative process of creating lower-impact products across the entire life cycle.” Jannik Desel, Project Manager Sustainability, GEA

LCA becoming integral to GEA design process

Desel, under GEA’s Chief Sustainability Officer Nadine Sterley, is now spearheading GEA’s effort to establish LCA expertise in house so that GEA can integrate life-cycle impact analyses into the development process for each product. “Our colleagues in Italy deserve credit for taking the big first step towards establishing LCA capability here within GEA,” says Sterley. “As the results demonstrate, the LCA is a powerful tool for identifying footprint hot spots, prioritizing sustainability improvements in our design process, and enhancing transparency for our customers.”

1Stefanini, Roberta; Bricoli, Barbara; Vignali, Giuseppe (2022, Vol. 10): Manufacturing, use phase or final disposal: where to focus the efforts to reduce the environmental impact of a food machine? Production & Manufacturing Research.

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