Biopolymers are considered to be environmentally friendlier than petroleum-based polymers, but little is known about their environmental performance against petroleum-based products. This paper presents the results of a life cycle assessment (LCA) of two prototype biocomposite formulations produced by extrusion of wood fibre with either polylactic acid (PLA) or a blend of PLA and locally produced thermoplastic starch (TPS).
The study followed the LCA methodology outlined in the two standards set out by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO): ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 of 2006. A life cycle inventory (LCI) for the biocomposite formulations was developed, and a contribution analysis was performed to identify the significant inputs. Environmental performances of the two formulations were then compared with each other and polypropylene (PP), a petroleum-based polymer. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s impact assessment method, “TRACI: The Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts”, was combined with Cumulative Energy Demand (a European method) in order to characterize the inventory flows. Environmental impact categories chosen for the analysis were the following: global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, acidification of land and water, eutrophication, smog, human health (respiratory, carcinogenic, and non-carcinogenic) effects and ecotoxicity.
Results and discussion
We found that PLA is the significant input which contributes mostly to fossil fuel consumption, acidification and respiratory and smog effects. Impacts from PLA transport from the faraway source significantly added more burden to its contributions. TPS causes less environmental burden compared to PLA; the environmental performance of the biocomposite improved when a blend of PLA and TPS is used in formulating the biocomposite. The two formulations performed better than PP in all the environmental impact categories except eutrophication effects, which is important on a regional basis.
The following conclusions were drawn from this study:
PLA is the environmentally significant input among the three raw materials.
TPS causes less environmental burden than PLA. Environmental performance of the biocomposite improves in the life cycle energy consumption, fossil energy use, ozone depletion and non-carcinogenic impact categories when a blend of PLA and TPS is used.
The biocomposite can outperform PP in all the impact categories except eutrophication effects if manufactured using hydroelectricity.
The biopolymer could be a potential alternative to PP as it could cause less of a burden to the environment on a cradle-to-gate basis. Environmental impacts at the complete life cycle levels should be looked into in order to fully understand its potential.