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Uncertainty in the Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Production of Three Biobased Polymer Families

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journal contribution
posted on 19.02.2016, 00:00 by I. Daniel Posen, Paulina Jaramillo, W. Michael Griffin
Interest in biobased products has been motivated, in part, by the claim that these products have lower life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than their fossil counterparts. This study investigates GHG emissions from U.S. production of three important biobased polymer families: polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) and bioethylene-based plastics. The model incorporates uncertainty into the life cycle emission estimates using Monte Carlo simulation. Results present a range of scenarios for feedstock choice (corn or switchgrass), treatment of coproducts, data sources, end of life assumptions, and displaced fossil polymer. Switchgrass pathways generally have lower emissions than corn pathways, and can even generate negative cradle-to-gate emissions if unfermented residues are used to coproduce energy. PHB (from either feedstock) is unlikely to have lower emissions than fossil polymers once end of life emissions are included. PLA generally has the lowest emissions when compared to high emission fossil polymers, such as polystyrene (mean GHG savings up to 1.4 kg CO2e/kg corn PLA and 2.9 kg CO2e/kg switchgrass PLA). In contrast, bioethylene is likely to achieve the greater emission reduction for ethylene intensive polymers, like polyethylene (mean GHG savings up to 0.60 kg CO2e/kg corn polyethylene and 3.4 kg CO2e/kg switchgrass polyethylene).