Environmental analysis of plastic production processes: comparing petroleum-based polypropylene and polyethylene with biologically-based poly-beta-hydroxybutyric acid using life cycle analysis

K G Harding, J S Dennis, H von Blottnitz, S T L Harrison
Journal of Biotechnology 2007 May 31, 130 (1): 57-66
Polymers based on olefins have wide commercial applicability. However, they are made from non-renewable resources and are characterised by difficulty in disposal where recycle and re-use is not feasible. Poly-beta-hydroxybutyric acid (PHB) provides one example of a polymer made from renewable resources. Before motivating its widespread use, the advantages of a renewable polymer must be weighed against the environmental aspects of its production. Previous studies relating the environmental impacts of petroleum-based and bio-plastics have centred on the impact categories of global warming and fossil fuel depletion. Cradle-to-grave studies report equivalent or reduced global warming impacts, in comparison to equivalent polyolefin processes. This stems from a perceived CO(2) neutral status of the renewable resource. Indeed, no previous work has reported the results of a life cycle assessment (LCA) giving the environmental impacts in all major categories. This study investigates a cradle-to-gate LCA of PHB production taking into account net CO(2) generation and all major impact categories. It compares the findings with similar studies of polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE). It is found that, in all of the life cycle categories, PHB is superior to PP. Energy requirements are slightly lower than previously observed and significantly lower than those for polyolefin production. PE impacts are lower than PHB values in acidification and eutrophication.

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