Navigating Environmental Impacts through Life Cycle Analysis of Fossil Fuel and Bio-Renewable Sourced Polymers

Main Presenter:    Sofia Pinto 

Co-Authors:   Ana Carolina Soares     Bruna Machado      Fábio Sá      Vítor Paulo      Bruno P. Silva      Natália Ladeira                  

In the pursuit of discovering a sustainable substitute for traditional plastics, bio-based plastics crafted from renewable raw materials have taken centre stage over the past two decades. Bio-based plastics are derived either partially or entirely from renewable resources such as sugarcane, sugar beet, maize, and other similar sources. Though promoted as eco-friendly alternatives to traditional polymers, the true environmental impacts of bio-based plastics are not well understood. This study aims to compare the environmental impacts of two plates using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): one with ABS, an existing market option, that comes from fossil fuels, and the other in development, utilizing a bio-based polylactic acid (PLA). This study proposes the use of LCA methodology in the design and development phase of the bio-based plate which allows the identification of improvement opportunities and opens avenues for promoting eco-friendly practices in the sector in the earliest stages of a
product development phase. Life Cycle Analysis, based on ISO 14040:44, was conducted to compare the environmental impacts of a polymer from fossil fuel (ABS) with a biopolymer from renewable sources (PLA). The system boundary was cradle-to-gate, and the LCA was conducted using SimaPro and EPD (2018) V1.04 as the chosen method, along with the Ecoinvent version 3.9.1. (2022).
Considering that the mass of the PLA’s plate is 19% higher than the mass of ABS, the results indicated that PLA presented lower environmental effects compared to ABS only in global warming and abiotic depletion indicators, with a reduction of 13.7% and 44.3% of the impacts, respectively, which can be justified by the ABS’s fossil origin. In contrast, in the other analysed categories, PLA presented higher impacts, namely in acidification (27.4%), eutrophication (333.4%), photochemical oxidation (12.3%), abiotic depletion (elements) (96.5%), water scarcity (114.1%) and ozone layer depletion (16.2%). The fact that PLA’s raw materials come from sources such as corn, may cause soil alteration problems due to the intensive use of fertilizers, reflecting the direct interaction of the environment and human activities, which can explain PLA’s worse impact in these categories. The analysis concluded that the main contributors to PLA’s impacts were the use of corn grains and electricity, while,
for the ABS, the greatest contribution to the environmental impacts was the generation of hazardous waste. Identifying and prioritizing key aspects during the development phase is crucial for gathering valuable insights that can inform sustainable decision-making in the future.

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