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Driving Sustainable Futures

30. November 2020

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Provides Evidence of Sustainability Claim

Simply claiming products are "green," "ecologically-friendly," or "sustainable" is no longer good enough. Overused words, phrases, and claims such as these often become meaningless. This has paved the way for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). 

LCA is a methodology used to provide evidence. By identifying the sustainability targets we hope to achieve and then determining how a product and its manufacturing process impacts that target, we are able to develop quantifiable, supporting data to validate our claims.

LCA is used across industry sectors, particularly in Automotive and Consumer Electronics. These industries can significantly improve their impact on the environment and/or have consumer pressure to address sustainability concerns.

According to Trinseo's Frank Schumann, Global Marketing Manager, Automotive, the top sustainability concerns globally are to avoid global warming, and also the depletion of our natural resources, namely water and energy.  Acceptable metrics to measure these targets are: CO2 emissions released and water and energy consumed. 

These sustainability concerns can be expanded, he adds, to include other areas that influence human life such as land use, deforestation, child labor, or impact on the food supply. After all, the definition of sustainability is broad -- to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – and the ramification of our actions and the impact of the products we create are often far reaching.

LCA diagram

A Process Flow Starts It All

Wherever the starting point, the key is to build a process flow and measure each step in the production process. This will include the raw materials, how they were extracted, transportation, and the natural resources consumed during the manufacturing process.

It will also include the analysis of the output, or the final product.  What becomes of it?  Will it go into a larger product or application? Does the final product or application have an impact on our sustainability goals?

A simple example of LCA, and one that Trinseo is involved with all the time, is to determine the sustainability impact of replacing a traditional ingredient with a sustainable alternative. Trinseo did this when it introduced a sustainable alternative to the PULSE™ GX Series of resins, which is manufactured with a combination of petroleum-based polycarbonate and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS.)

The alternative, our PULSE™ ECO grades, replace the polycarbonate portion with post-industrial recycled (PIR) polycarbonate, i.e., a material that had already been manufactured, was considered scrap, and was reclaimed from an industrial setting. Using LCA, we were able to quantify the CO2 emissions saved in the PIR / polycarbonate portion, since CO2 had been emitted when the material was initially processed.  Other parameters that influence the LCA results are water and energy savings, emissions associated with the transportation of the goods to the manufacturing facility and even the benefits from using a lighter material in the final application.

LCA table

One can see that an LCA process can be complex and multifaceted. The data required to conduct the analysis is not always readily available and sometimes a process needs to be put in place to collect it. While it can be done internally, an objective third party is often chosen to conduct the analysis. 

According to Schumann, Trinseo collaborated with a university in Germany to conduct LCA on its polycarbonate plant in Stade, Germany to certify the sustainability claims regarding its operations. This required an analysis of various criteria involved in the production of 1 kg of polycarbonate, followed by an extrapolation of the data to facility-level production capacity.

Clearly LCA is a growing trend. In most circles, the analysis is not a requirement yet soon companies and customers will undoubtedly ask for it, specifying what thresholds need to be attained, similar to how performance attributes are specified today. Consumers too will be more accustomed to seeing this type of information on their products, like they do, to some extent, on new vehicle stickers.

"It's all about making a process visible and following the flow of materials and resources used. I like to say we're demystifying and putting numbers to a great big black box," said Schumann.

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