Life cycle assessment of bio-based products: a disposable diaper case study
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In this study, a life cycle assessment of a bioplastic based diaper was performed. The product has several innovative elements, due to the implementation of eco-design principles, such as: (1) introduction of biopolymers (namely polylactic acid (PLA) and Mater-bi®), (2) relevant reduction of petrochemical plastics, and (3) minimization of energy consumptions and use of renewable energy in manufacturing. The aim of the study is to evaluate the environmental benefits gained through eco-innovation, while identifying further areas of improvement.
The bio-based diaper has been evaluated using a “cradle-to-gate” analysis. The functional unit is one diaper, assuming an average size among the different commercial options. A case study of an enterprise in Italy (WIP S.p.A) was carried out to collect as much reliable primary data as possible. In order to highlight potential areas of improvement and to compare the environmental performance of the product, a sensitivity analysis based on three different impact assessment methods (adopting ReCiPe 2008, IMPACT 2002+ and Cumulative Energy Demand (CED)) and a comparison with a standard commercial diaper were performed. Finally, three possible end-of-life scenarios including composting of WIP diaper were hypothesized and tested.
Results and discussion
Contribution analysis suggested that sourcing and production of raw materials used in WIP diaper manufacturing contributed most significantly to the potential environmental impacts. Adopting ReCiPe method, pulp, and sodium polyacrylate present the highest environmental burdens in WIP diaper system. Applying IMPACT2002+ method, PLA relative contribution to the toxicity increases, due to the generation of the electricity used in corn production and in PLA production phases. For both methods, impacts related to energy consumption of the WIP diapers’ production process look to be negligible. WIP diaper performance has room for improvement, since critical points were detected in the life cycle stages of raw materials used. However, the results of the normalization step, according to ReCiPe method, state that WIP diapers can bring environmental benefits, compared to standard ones. Moreover, if composting end-of-life scenario is included in the assessment, there is a significant improvement in WIP diaper environmental performance compared to a standard diaper.
Integrating eco-innovation and eco-design principles in the production of the bio-based diaper leads to a better environmental profile, compared to the standard one. Nevertheless, there are several areas of concerns to be considered in order to further improve its environmental performance. So far, the possible improvements identified from the case study are: (1) the selection of biopolymers suppliers with better production systems from an environmental point of view, (2) the reduction of distances along the supply chain, and (3) the implementation of composting procedures for the end of life. In conclusion, the introduction of biopolymers in diaper composition could lead them to be preferable compared to standard diapers, but criticisms arise, which need to be solved, to avoid the risk of burdens shifting.
KeywordsBiopolymers Diaper LCA PLA
We greatly appreciate the data supplied by Chiara Bambagioni, and we thank Marco Benedetti, who has designed and patented the WIP diaper, for the support given during the development of the present study.
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