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Publication | 10 January 2019

Prospective Life Cycle Assessment of emerging technologies for bio-based materials

Bioeconomy

Bio-based materials play a key role in the transition from a fossil to a bio-based economy, and they are essential to the development of a more circular and decarbonized economy. Of particular interest is the use of bio-waste feedstocks, such as food waste, for biomaterials production. Recent development of new processes and technologies are capable of valorising this type of feedstocks, and are alleged to be sustainable as they apply green chemistry principles. However, quantitative sustainability assessments have not yet been conducted on these early-stage technologies, while they are crucial to maximize their benefits while reducing potential environmental consequences and avoiding burden shifting. To this end, life cycle assessment (LCA) methods can support the evaluation of the environmental impacts of feedstocks and technologies and identify possible trade-offs. Prospective LCA has become a current area of research area that promote the integration of environmental criteria in early stages of technology development toward responsible research and innovation. A body of literature can be found that employs modelling tools which focus on potential environmental impacts arising from various technologies even still at the R&D stage. While useful, these studies have not examined the generalizability of methods, particularly around the scale-up of processes using bio-based materials. The goal of this paper is to present a working framework that fills this gap. The framework was built on existing prospective LCA methods, capturing the specificity of bio-based processes, but it is flexible enough to provide guidance for other technological systems. The application of the framework is illustrated with the assessment of the environmental performance of alternative valorisation pathways for food waste, focusing on those pathways that are still at an early stage of development.