Life Cycle Thinking

Focus Areas

PlasticsEurope promotes the use of Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) to improve the understanding of product benefits and to enable more informed decisions to be made when considering concepts such as the circular economy. Life Cycle Thinking makes use of life cycle assessments (LCA), which is a technique that analyses the potential environmental impacts associated with a product, process or service.
It involves:

  • Compiling an inventory of energy and material inputs and environmental releases
  • Assessing the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases
  • Calculating performance indicators to inform decisions.

 

UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative
 

2.4.. LCI LOGO.pngThe United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) launched the Life Cycle Initiative in 2002. Its mission is to enable the global use of credible life cycle knowledge to achieve a more sustainable society. PlasticsEurope fully supports the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative.

For PlasticsEurope, Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) is a strategic concept, based on robust data and methodology. In recognition of its importance, PlasticsEurope has been a gold sponsor of the LC initiative for years. The initiative focuses on facilitating the generation and application of science-based life cycle approaches and information for products by business, government and civil society practice worldwide as a basis for sustainable consumption and production.

For more information about the Life Cycle Initiative, please visit: www.lifecycleinitiative.org.

 

Eco-profiles Programme
 

2.4. eco profiles shutterstock_3495183.pngPlasticsEurope was the first industry organisation to assemble and publish detailed environmental data on the processes operated by its member companies. The first Eco-profile reports were published in 1993. Since then, reports have been added and continuously updated, so that there are now more than 70 Eco-profile reports freely available. In 2006, a complementary Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) programme was started. Eco-profiles and EPDs cover the high volume, bulk polymers, some of the more widely used engineering plastics, and several common plastics conversion processes. Widely acknowledged among life cycle practitioners and other stakeholders worldwide as representative datasets, they have been included in various commercial life cycle databases as well as in the publicly available European Life Cycle Database (ELCD).
 

Objectives of Eco-profiles
 

PlasticsEurope has clear objectives when compiling the Eco-profile reports, which represent European production averages:

  • One, is to place scientifically sound data in the public domain for use in product life-cycle studies, without compromising the confidentiality of detailed process data of the individual companies.
  • The second is to encourage environmental improvements in production processes through benchmarking against a European industry average.
  • The third key factor is that, given the large contribution of upstream effects to the Eco-profile of a polymer and in view of the distribution of input materials, such as ethylene or naphtha via the European pipeline network, industry averages are the most robust representation of polymer production systems.
     

Future of Eco-profiles


Since the first Eco-profile reports were published, Life Cycle Assessment methodology, standardisation and practice has undergone substantial changes. New concepts, such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) and Carbon Footprints have emerged. Downstream industries such as the building and construction sector have their own standards and data needs. Hence, Eco-profiles need to change in response to best practices and stakeholder needs. To this end, PlasticsEurope periodically seeks stakeholder input on the Eco-profile methodology. Furthermore, in view of the need for globally harmonised practices and comparable results, PlasticsEurope welcomes and actively invites liaison with other regional federations. As a contribution towards shared best practices, the Eco-profile methodology aligns with other material- or sector-specific standards.

 

Environmental Footprint
 

2.4. footprint shutterstock_111482522.pngPlasticsEurope participate to the Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint project led by the European Commission.
More information can be found on the following link
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/eussd/smgp/index.htm



 

 

 

 

Updates and maintenance
 

While Eco-profiles are expected to be valid for a number of years due to the long lifespans of installations and capital investments, technological changes in the plastics industry require intermittent updates: some plants have been upgraded, whilst others have closed; new technology has been implemented, in particular cleaner fuels and emission reductions. Furthermore, the quality of data improves as a consequence of monitoring and benchmarking programmes. Finally, the dynamic nature of the petrochemical industry, its global markets, and the sophisticated inter-relation of the different production units imply that Eco-profile data are subject to continuous change. Eco-profile database management ensures that data are internally consistent and updates account for changes in upstream industries, utilities, production process technologies and methodological best practices.

FAQs
 

If you have a question that is not listed below, please contact our expert

 

Why does PlasticsEurope publish Eco-profiles only as averages?

PlasticsEurope’s intention is to place robust data in the public domain for use in product life cycle studies. Such data must be representative in terms of technological, geographical, and time-related scope. As the association of plastics manufacturers in Europe, the scope of PlasticsEurope is the current European production of polymers and precursors.

This leaves the question of why a technology mix is reported. When sourcing polymers (or any other commodity material for that matter), specifiers and purchasers effectively draw on a “pool” of suppliers. This is because they may purchase from traders and/or switch suppliers at any time, for example, as a result of pricing. Furthermore, plastics are compound materials; apart from the polymers, various additives are introduced in the compounding and conversion steps, which leads to a further “blending” of supply chains. Consequently, when conducting product life cycle assessment studies for plastics applications, a distinction between specific polymer producers is usually neither possible nor relevant. This is similar to the fact that domestic energy consumers receive electricity generated from a variety of fuels. As a result, PlasticsEurope Eco-profiles are held to the best representation of the European polymer production technology mix.

Aside from representativeness considerations, reporting industry averages also enables PlasticsEurope to meet the external demand for consolidated industry information, while at the same time respecting the companies’ needs for confidentiality of their data.

Furthermore, consolidated industry data allows PlasticsEurope to stimulate environmental improvements in manufacturing by facilitating internal company benchmarking against the European average, encouraging a reduction in environmental impact.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 1.1.1, 2.3.2]

 

Why does PlasticsEurope not adopt a unit process database structure?

While a unit process database structure may offer transparency and versatility, it also has disadvantages that PlasticsEurope concluded outweighed the benefits. First, transparency is limited by the need for confidentiality to protect the industry's business interests. The unit process approach may have disclosed product formulations and other sensitive information. Second, versatility is limited by industrial reality because the free recombination of processes along a production or supply chain is actually neither feasible nor desirable: unit processes based on horizontal averages from different technologies may show unrealistic input and output flows; sites located in different regions or operating incompatible technologies may not be connected into practicable supply chains; and integrated production sites offer synergies that are not represented by stringing together unit processes.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 3.1.4, 3.7.1]

 

Why does PlasticsEurope not publish more Eco-profiles on semi-fabricated or recycled products?

The scope of PlasticsEurope as an association is the production of polymers and reactive precursors, not the compounding and conversion into plastics and (semi-)fabricated products. While the PlasticsEurope Eco-profiles Methodology does allow for conversion or recycling processes to be examined, it would require the initiative of other federations, such as the European Plastics Converters (EuPC) and the European Plastics Recyclers (EuPR) to complete.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 2.3.2]

 

How can I transfer Eco-profiles to other regions?

PlasticsEurope’s Eco-profiles represent European polymer production averages. If you need data for a different region, please check with the respective industry federation for applicable programmes and datasets, for instance ACC Plastics Division for the US and PACIA for Australia. Due to the integrated nature of production systems in each region, transferring life cycle inventory data is not as straightforward as, for instance, swapping out electricity mixes, and should therefore be handled with the utmost care.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 1.2.2, 3.1.4, 3.3.6]

 

Should I add the Eco-profiles figures for monomers and polymers to obtain total environmental impacts?

No, you do not need to add the figures. Each Eco-profile is a stand-alone dataset comprising the whole chain up to the reported product; a so-called “cradle-to-gate” approach.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 3.1.2]

 

Why do LCI data sometimes not add up when comparing the LCI of a polymer with its monomer or precursors?

Each Eco-profile LCI dataset has its own system boundary. In some cases, polymer producers are fully integrated, producing the monomer or precursors as well. In other cases, they purchase the monomer or precursors from third parties, who also supply other users. Consequently, the technology mix changes when comparing polymer and monomer. It is important to realise that, depending on where the system boundaries are set in the interconnected chemical and plastics industry, with its various technologies and supply chains, the results will differ.

 

Can I determine the most sustainable polymers by comparing Eco-profiles?

No. In order to compare the performance of different materials, the whole life cycle, and the effects of relevant life cycle parameters, must be considered in view of a defined functional unit. Comparisons cannot be made at the level of polymers, because polymers can be used in very different applications. Since Eco-profiles refer to a quantity of 1 kg of the polymer in question, they are not functionally equivalent, but rather building blocks for life cycle studies.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 5.2.5]

 

If I do not find an Eco-profile for the polymer I am interested in, what can I do?

In many cases it may be possible to construct a viable life cycle inventory proxy from building blocks of upstream processes and expert estimates. Due to the different and very specific production technologies, however, this requires a degree of expertise and experience. Please contact the Programme Manager under the Eco-profile hotline for more information.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 3.1.4]

 

How credible are Eco-profile data, given that PlasticsEurope as an industry association publishes them?

PlasticsEurope has an interest to provide stakeholders with transparent and verifiable Eco-profile datasets. To ensure this objective is achieved, the Eco-profile programme management panel includes several independent parties. In addition, the methodology is transparent, peer reviewed and publicly available; the data collection and calculations are conducted by independent external consultants; the procedures and results are internally reviewed by a multidisciplinary expert group involving several member companies (competing in the markets); and the data, procedures, and results are externally reviewed by the independent programme manager in accordance with best practices, such as the ILCD Handbook.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 1.1, 1.2]

 

How is the data quality of Eco-profiles ensured?

During data collection and modelling, the independent external consultant will conduct plausibility and completeness checks, for instance, by calculating mass and energy balances. In addition, the independent external reviewer will verify data quality indicators such as technological, temporal, and geographical representativeness, completeness, precision, and methodological consistency in accordance with best practices, such as the ILCD Handbook.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 3.3, 5.1]

 

What electricity mix is used to calculated Eco-profiles?

There is not a single (for example European average) electricity mix underpinning Eco-profiles. Rather, each production site participating in the data collection will be modelled with its own specific national grid mix or individual on-site electricity supply. The results from each site will be weighed with the respective production tonnage, then figured into the European polymer production average. Consequently, for any given Eco-profile the resulting tonnage-weighted average depends on the locations of the participating sites. This appropriately reflects industrial production patterns.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 3.3.6, 5.1]

 

Are Eco-profiles compliant with current LCA standards?

Yes, the Eco-profile methodology is aligned with ISO standards 14040–44, 14025 and the ILCD Handbook of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 1.6]
 

How does PlasticsEurope handle the allocation of impacts between co-products?

Where allocation is unavoidable, the PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology stipulates a fundamental allocation philosophy, aimed at informed and transparent choices which represent industrial reality. Ultimately, however, this remains a subjective decision. Therefore, the chosen allocation method and its rationale are recorded in the Eco-profile report, supported by a sensitivity analysis to illustrate the variability in results where necessary.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 3.7.2]
 

What does feedstock energy mean?

Where allocation is unavoidable, the PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology stipulates a fundamental allocation philosophy, aimed at informed and transparent choices which represent industrial reality. Ultimately, however, this remains a subjective decision. Therefore, the chosen allocation method and its rationale are recorded in the Eco-profile report, supported by a sensitivity analysis tFeedstock energy is a concept used in addition to the input/output tables of the Life Cycle Inventory methodology. It is meant to facilitate the interpretation of resource use. Since the backbone of polymers is generally hydrocarbon chains, the plastics industry defines feedstock energy as the portion of resource input that ends up in the polymer rather than being used as a fuel. Feedstock energy is given as the energy equivalent of these organic input materials, which can be either non-renewable (fossil) or renewable (biogenic). It is important to note that the concept can be applied to other materials and industries in a similar way, by assigning an energy equivalent to, for instance, minerals and metals. illustrate the variability in results where necessary.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 3.8.3]
 

Which impact categories are used and how are they calculated?

PlasticsEurope’s Eco-profiles and EPDs use a selection of validated life cycle impact categories which are sufficiently reliable to support business decisions: for example, ADP, GWP, AP, EP, ODP, POCP. The calculation of each is based on specific scientific guidelines and assessment factors and fully in line with best practices, such as the ILCD Handbook.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 4.1, 4.2]
 

Why are there, sometimes, substantial changes to the update of an Eco-profile?

Innovation and the continuous improvement of production technologies in the plastics industry leads to improvements in key performance indicators, which are reflected in the relevant Eco-profile. It is important to note that the Eco-profile methodology remains compatible with earlier editions and that all changes will be commented upon in the Eco-profile reports.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 5.1.3, 5.2.2]
 

How often will Eco-profiles be updated?

The Programme Manager and qualified consultants intermittently check the Eco-profile database for necessary updates. The criteria are age of dataset, data quality, and request for updates. In addition, the validity of an Eco-profile expires after three years. After this period, a revalidation review will be conducted. Note that the expected temporal validity of an Eco-profile, based on progress in technology and investment, can be much longer, for example 10 years. Hence, Eco-profiles may be revalidated without major changes where the current technology mix is still represented.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: section 1.4.3]
 

As a life cycle consultant, how can I apply for Eco-profile work with PlasticsEurope?

If you are an experienced LCA practitioner and capable of managing large-scale data collection campaigns, you can apply to undergo a pre-qualification process to become recognised as an eligible service provider. Please contact the Programme Manager under the Eco-profile hotline for more information.
[PlasticsEurope Eco-profile Methodology Document: sections 1.3.2, 5.1.2]

Glossary of terms
 

Abiotic depletion potential, ADP
An environmental impact category, measuring the extraction of primary resources, such as minerals, metals and fossil fuels.

Acidification potential, AP
An environmental impact category ("acid rain"). Emissions (e.g. sulphur oxides, nitrous oxides, ammonia) from transport, energy generation, combustion processes and agriculture cause acidity of rainwater and thus damage to woodlands, lakes and buildings. Reference substance: sulphur dioxide.

Eco-profile
Another term for Life Cycle Inventory, used synonymously by PlasticsEurope, usually cradle-to-gate, but in case of conversion processes it may also be gate-to-gate.

Eco-profile Project Team, EPT
A dedicated, temporary task force formed for the purposes of overseeing Eco-profile work for a specific polymer. The team consists of members of PlasticsEurope’s relevant product committee, HSE group, Life Cycle Task Force (LCTF), plus the LCA practitioner and the programme manager.

Environmental Product Declaration, EPD
A standardised method (ISO 14025) of communicating the environmental performance of a product or service based on LCA data.

Eutrophication potential, EP
An environmental impact category (also in some cases, nutrification potential). Emissions such as phosphate, nitrate, nitrous oxides, and ammonia from transport, energy generation, agriculture (fertilisers) and wastewater increase the growth of aquatic plants and can produce algae blooms that consume the oxygen in water and thus smother other aquatic life. This is called eutrophication and causes damage to rivers, lakes, plants, and fish. Reference substance: phosphate.

Feedstock energy
Definition in accordance with ISO 14040: combustion heat of raw material input that is not used as an energy source to a product system, expressed in terms of higher heating value or lower heating value.

NOTE: Care should be taken to ensure that double counting of raw material energy content is not done« [ISO 14040, 3.17]

Global warming potential, GWP
An environmental impact category ("greenhouse effect"). Energy from the sun drives the earth’s weather and climate, and heats the earth’s surface. In turn, the earth radiates energy back into space. Atmospheric greenhouse gases (water vapour, carbon dioxide, and other gases) influence the energy balance in a way that leads to an increased average temperature at the earth’s surface. Problems arise when the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases increases due to the "man-made" (or anthropogenic) greenhouse effect: this additional greenhouse effect, caused by human activities, may further increase the average global temperature. The index GWP is calculated as a multiple equivalent of the absorption due to the substance in question in relation to the emission of 1 kg of carbon dioxide, the reference substance, over 100 years. The term carbon footprint is considered to be synonymous with the GWP of a product.

Life Cycle Impact Assessment, LCIA
Evaluation of the environmental relevance of material and energy flows (e.g. with regard to resource depletion or global warming potential).

Life Cycle Inventory, LCI
An input/output analysis of material and energy flows from operations along product system; PlasticsEurope also uses the term Eco-profile.

Life cycle assessment, LCA
A standardised management tool (ISO 14040–44) for appraising and quantifying the total environment impact of products or activities over their entire life cycle of particular materials, processes, products, technologies, services or activities.

Offsetting
Financing activities which compensate for the climate effect (and often at the same time, the use of non-renewable resources) resulting from manufacturing.

Ozone depletion potential, ODP
An environmental impact category ("ozone hole"). The index ODP is calculated as the contribution to the breakdown of the ozone layer that would result from the emission of one kg of the substance in question in relation to the emission of one kg of CFC-11 as a reference substance.

Photochemical ozone creation potential, POCP
An environmental impact category (photooxidants, "summer smog"). The index used to translate the level of emissions of various gases into a common measure to compare their contributions to the change of ground-level ozone concentration. The index POCP is calculated as the contribution to ozone formation close to the ground, due the substance in question in relation to the emission of one kg of ethene as a reference substance.

Product Category Rules, PCR
A set of rules for the preparation of LCA and EPD within a functionally defined class of products. A PCR document is a necessary component of any Type III Environmental Declaration programme (ISO 14025).

Applicable standards
 

PlasticsEurope considers the recognition and use of the ISO 140xx series of standards to be crucial when using Life Cycle Thinking in the decision-making processes involving environmental criteria.

  • ISO 14040: Environmental management – Life Cycle Assessment – Principles and Framework.

  • ISO 14044: Environmental management – Life Cycle Assessment – Requirements and Guidelines.

  • ISO 14021: Self-declared environmental claims – Type II Environmental Labelling.

  • ISO 14025: Environmental labels and declarations – Type III Environmental Declarations.

  • ISO 14067: Carbon Footprint of Products (under development).

Literature
 

For more information about Life Cycle Thinking, see:

Links to external resources:

Publications:
Criteria for eco-efficient (sustainable) plastic recycling and waste management
Fact based findings from 20 years of Denkstatt studies (see denkstatt.at)
Published: September 2014

http://www.plasticseurope.org/documents/document/20100805122034-20100803150235-denkstatt.jpgThe impact of plastics on life-cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe
PDF document
Denkstatt Study: summary report
Published: June 2010

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