Local systems, global impacts. Using life cycle assessment to analyse the potential and constraints of industrial symbioses

The aim of this study was to analyse the environmental performance of an industrial symbiosis based on pulp and paper production, taking into account life cycle impacts as well. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool for quantitatively and systematically evaluating the environmental aspects of a product, technology or service throughout its whole life cycle. Moreover, the Natural Step Sustainability Principles formed a conceptual framework for assessing the environmental performance of the case study symbiosis. The environmental performance of the case study symbiosis was compared to four counterfactual reference scenarios in which the actors of the symbiosis operated on their own. The research methods used were process-based life cycle assessment (LCA) and hybrid LCA, which combines both process and input-output LCA. The results showed that the environmental impacts caused by the extraction and processing of the materials and the energy used by the symbiosis were considerable. If only the direct emissions and resource use of the symbiosis had been considered, less than half of the total environmental impacts of the system would have been taken into account. When the results were compared with the counterfactual reference scenarios, the net environmental impacts of the symbiosis were smaller than those of the reference scenarios. The reduction in environmental impacts was mainly due to changes in the way energy was produced. However, the results are sensitive to the way the reference scenarios are defined. LCA is a useful tool for assessing the overall environmental performance of industrial symbioses. It is recommended that in addition to the direct effects, the upstream impacts should be taken into account as well when assessing the environmental performance of industrial symbioses. Industrial symbiosis should be seen as part of the process of improving the environmental performance of a system. In some cases, it may be more efficient, from an environmental point of view, to focus on supply chain management instead.

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Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment

Author Laura Sokka
Institution University of Helsinki
Advisor Professor Pekka Kauppi
Expected graduation 2011