Bio-based and bio-degradable plastics are becoming more popular as a way to address environmental problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and depletion of natural resources. Biodegradability is seen as a key property that plastics should have to reduce environmental impacts, but it is not the ultimate solution to the problem of mismanaged plastic waste. To evaluate the environmental consequences of switching from fossil-based to bio-based products and from current products to bio-degradable alternatives, the use of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is essential.
LCA is the recommended methodology to assess the environmental impacts of products over its entire life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, through manufacturing, use, and disposal or end of life. LCA can also be used to compare the environmental impacts of two systems taking into account all relevant environmental impacts, such as climate change, water use, human toxicity or land use, apart from other impact categories. The goal of LCA is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the environmental impacts of a product and to identify areas where significant improvements can be made. An LCA is always conducted following a specific methodological guideline. The use of different LCA methodologies can lead to different results, depending on assumptions, limitations, data or methods used. As a consequence, selecting the right methodology is crucial to obtain reliable and comparable results.
How is the LCA performed in LABPLAS?
In the LABPLAS project, the methodology was defined based on the Joint Research Centre (JRC) Plastics LCA method, while also taking into consideration the concerns of the European Bioplastics Association (EUBP) and the European Bioeconomy Alliance (EUBA). The JRC Plastics LCA method was developed to evaluate the life cycle environmental performance of plastics but, as EUBP and EUBA highlight, it requires further specifications to fairly compare fossil and bio-based product systems. Some of the main challenges emphasized by JRC, EUBA and EUBP are the need to fill knowledge and data gaps in the assessment of indirect land use change impacts, non-GHG-related impacts related to land use change, scarcity of data on additives used in plastic production, potential recycling incompatibilities, different data quality and transparency requirements, among others.
The JRC Plastics LCA report highlights the impacts of mismanaged waste or littered products, which are not commonly accounted for in LCAs of plastic products. Littering can lead to the release of additives, small, micro, and nano-plastics, and other organic compounds after degradation processes. It can also cause direct and indirect effects on biodiversity and human health. The report emphasized the need to increase knowledge on the degradation and biodegradation processes of plastics and the lack of reliable littering rates. The JRC Plastics LCA method questioned whether the inclusion of an independent littering impact category is needed.
Currently, most of the scientific community has their eyes on MarILCA project, which aims to develop a framework to assess the impacts of plastics littered in the ocean, allowing LCA practitioners to include such impacts in the LCA of plastics
By the end of the project, LABPLAS expects to contribute to improve LCA methodologies and tackling some of the most relevant challenges. The LABPLAS project will use data generated in the project and overcome these gaps in current methods and data, by using a cradle-to-gate approach that considers both, the biodegradability of plastics and littering. Using a robust LCA approach can help people, organizations, and governments to make more environmentally friendly choices regarding the use or promotion of different types of plastics, such as those made from fossil fuels or biological sources, and whether they are degradable or non-degradable.
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