Life Cycle Assessment of Biobased Materials


We are in the last part of our Fibrenet project, and lots of great memories and lessons learned are coming to my head. I am thinking about the fantastic project meetings where PhDs and project partners interacted with each other. Something that I loved about those meetings was the simple connection with my peers during the coffee breaks, of course, in a biobased coffee cup.

As the sustainability person among my PhD peers, I was happy by the catering service’s effort to provide these biobased alternatives: from cups for our coffee to cutlery and plates for the different meals throughout the day. I remember PhD peers approaching me to discuss how ‘sustainable’ we were due to these biobased-source alternatives. However, the excitement of using a bio-based alternative instead of fossil-based plastic can create a big hype. Still, we should not just focus on the product that we have in our hands. We should also ask - How did this product reach us? How much forest did it need to produce this alternative? How much energy? An even, what is going to happen when I discard the coffee cup in the garbage bin? When evaluating a product’s environmental impact, we must consider its life cycle from the resources used (raw materials), manufacturing, and the end-of-life (recycling, incineration, or landfill).

But now what? How do we know that our product is ‘environmentally friendly’? – We need something (a tool) that helps us quantify the environmental impact of the product’s life cycle. This tool is called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Academics, companies, and policymakers have widely used it to guide the design and selection of products and services that fulfill environmental goals, such as the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). Like any other assessment, it follows a standard procedure as described below.



  1. Goal and Scope definition

We define the main objective and the system boundaries of our assessment.

The purpose of the study is to assess the environmental performance of a product or service. We can also compare different alternatives for producing biobased packaging.

The system boundaries are the processes included in our assessment. In packaging production, the processes included in the system boundaries can be the extraction of wood to produce paper pulp, the manufacturing of packaging from paper pulp, and its final disposal (recycling).

  1. Life Cycle Inventory (LCI)

In this step, we focus on the data collection of the previously selected system boundaries. Data collection refers to the amounts of inputs (chemicals and energy) and outputs (waste streams and emissions) to obtain the selected product. Data inventory is one of the critical steps in an LCA since the availability and quality of the data will reflect on the assessment’s results.

  1. Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA)

We select the impact categories (global warming potential, agricultural land occupation potential, water consumption potential). An impact category groups different emissions into one effect on the environment.

  1. Interpretation

Finally, we draw conclusions and provide guidance on the environmental bottlenecks of the product. We can also offer possible solutions to improve the environmental performance.

The results from an LCA study are not definitive. They provide ‘guidance’ on the direction any company or policymaker should follow to promote the production or use of environmentally friendly alternatives. In the end, the main goal of an LCA study is not to point out the best product (or as commonly seen in the media – the “greenest”) or the worst. The selection of the best alternative depends on our assumptions, system boundaries, and data quality.




Carlos Andrés García Velásquez

ESR5 - Maastricht University