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Keywords:

  • biodegradable;
  • bioplastic;
  • cumulative energy;
  • environment;
  • industrial ecology;
  • life cycle assessment (LCA)

Summary

Recent developments in nanotechnology, especially in the area of nanoclay composites, are improving the technical performance of biobased polymers and moving them toward technical and economic competitiveness with petroleum-based polymers and conventional composites. We assess whether these developments also improve the environmental sustainability of biopolymers, by using a life cycle approach. We estimate energy use and emissions from the nanoclay production process and compare these with prior life cycle data for biopolymers as well as other fibers, and we find that nanoclay production results in lower energy use and greenhouse gas emissions than production of many common biopolymers and glass fibers. Nanoclay composites hence can improve the life cycle environmental performance of several common biopolymers. However, for some biopolymers the relative performance depends on the functional unit.