The European Union has published a new study entitled “Environmental impact assessments of innovative bio-based products” which aims to provide science-based facts and evidence on the environmental impacts of innovative bio-based products and mostly plastic products compared to petrochemical counterparts.
Seven cradle-to-grave Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) case studies were carried out covering three major commercialised bio-based polymers:
• bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET; “beverage bottles”);
• polylactide acid (PLA; “single-use cups”, “single-use Cutlery”, “packaging films”) and
• starch plastics (“clips”, “mulch films” and “carrier bags”).
Primary data were gathered from the industry based on the real supply chain. This also included the biomass currently used by the industry.
Based on normalised and weighted results of 16 impact categories (excluding direct and indirect land use changes) the most important impact categories for the biobased products were found to be climate change, abiotic depletion (fossil fuels) and human toxicity (cancer effects). Together these three impact categories accounted for some 30 to 60% of the total cradle-to-grave impacts and were highly associated with the direct and indirect emissions during the end-of-life phase.
Based on a literature review of fossil fuel polymers, only five environmental impact categories were concluded to have low discrepancy in their LCA results and could therefore be used for comparison. These were: climate change, abiotic depletion, particulate matters, photochemical ozone formation and terrestrial eutrophication.
Compared to their fossil counterparts, the seven biobased products studies offered benefits regarding climate change and abiotic depletion, but in some cases were found to have a higher impact when it came to particulate matters. The comparison for the two other categories varied from case to case. The chosen End-of-Life scenario was found to strongly affect the overall impact savings of the biobased products, especially significant for climate change impact.
The study ultimately provides an excellent starting point for comparing biobased and fossil-fuel plastics, as well as a good indication of the likely impacts and benefits of biobased products compared to fossil-based conventional plastics, however further study is required to provide a better basis for formulating general policies on biobased plastics.
The full report (“Environmental impact assessment of innovative bio-based products”) covers all methodological issues, the seven LCA case studies and a final section of combined observations and closing remarks.