Comparing the Land Requirements, Energy Savings, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction of Biobased Polymers and Bioenergy

An Analysis and System Extension of Life-Cycle Assessment Studies


Department of Science, Technology, and Society Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation Utrecht University, Padualaan 14, 3584 CH Utrecht, The Netherlands, <>, <http:www.chem.uu.nlnwswwwnws.html>


This study compares energy savings and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions of biobased polymers with those of bioenergy on a per unit of agricultural land-use basis by extending existing life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies. In view of policy goals to increase the energy supply from biomass and current efforts to produce biobased polymers in bulk, the amount of available land for the production of nonfood crops could become a limitation. Hence, given the prominence of energy and greenhouse issues in current environmental policy, it is desirable to include land demand in the comparison of different biomass options. Over the past few years, numerous LCA studies have been prepared for different types of bio-based polymers, but only a few of these studies address the aspect of land use. This comparison shows that referring energy savings and GHG emission reduction of biobased polymers to a unit of agricultural land, instead of to a unit of polymer produced, leads to a different ranking of options. If land use is chosen as the basis of comparison, natural fiber composites and thermoplastic starch score better than bioenergy production from energy crops, whereas polylactides score comparably well and polyhydroxyalkaonates score worse. Additionally, including the use of agricultural residues for energy purposes improves the environmental performance of bio-based polymers significantly. Moreover, it is very likely that higher production efficiencies will be achieved for biobased polymers in the medium term. Biobased polymers thus offer interesting opportunities to reduce the utilization of nonrenewable energy and to contribute to GHG mitigation in view of potentially scarce land resources.