Testing environmental and social indicators for biorefineries: bioethanol and biochemical production

Abstract

Purpose

The article aims to test indicators for assessing the environmental and social impacts of biorefineries. Testing environmental and social impact categories and indicators, and selecting the most suitable ones, will simultaneously contribute to the further development of social life cycle assessment (S-LCA) methodologies while assessing several dimensions of sustainability at biorefineries.

Methods

The work applies two methodologies, environmental LCA (E-LCA) and social LCA (S-LCA), to two hypothetical production processes of second-generation bioethanol and biochemical in two alternative locations (Norway and the USA). Five impact categories were chosen for the E-LCA. The S-LCA was performed in two stages: a generic assessment (top-down approach) using the social hotspot database (SHDB 2013) to screen for potential social issues in the stakeholder group Worker in Norway and the USA and a specific assessment (bottom-up approach) for collecting data and confirming or refuting the SHDB results in the Norwegian case only.

Results and discussion

Bioethanol produced in the Norwegian biorefinery would perform relatively well in relation to climate change targets, with emissions of approximately 11 g CO2-eq/MJ. The same production process located in the USA would produce emissions of approximately 29 g CO2-eq/MJ. Other biorefinery products are difficult to compare because of a lack of clear alternatives. Bioethanol and biochemicals produced in the hypothetical USA production process have higher burdens than those from the Norwegian production process in all environmental categories assessed. For both production processes, the main social risks were in the category Health and safety followed by Labor rights and decent work. More detailed investigations in an existing Norwegian biorefinery value chain confirmed some of the risk issues but discarded others, demonstrating the necessity of providing specific data and results for the social dimension.

Conclusions

E-LCA and S-LCA make it possible to highlight the main environmental and social challenges when producing biochemicals. The SHDB has potential as a social screening tool although social indicators are not yet well established. Hence, specific assessment is necessary for validating the results in the social dimension. S-LCA is still in its infancy and needs to be applied in order to develop the best practice. The two methodologies addressed bioethanol and biochemical production performance in two different dimensions (environmental and social), and their combination makes it possible to achieve results that integrate the product-oriented approach with the more location-specific approach.

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Acknowledgements

The work is partly funded by a project sponsored by the Norwegian Research Council and Borregaard Industries Ltd. called “New Norwegian Biorefinery,” aimed at developing a new process for bioethanol production. We are grateful for the financial support and even more the access to interesting information and people.

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Correspondence to Clara Valente.

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Responsible editor: Alessandra Zamagni

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Valente, C., Brekke, A. & Modahl, I.S. Testing environmental and social indicators for biorefineries: bioethanol and biochemical production. Int J Life Cycle Assess 23, 581–596 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-017-1331-x

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Keywords

  • Biochemicals
  • Biorefinery
  • S-LCA
  • Social hotspots
  • Sustainability