Examples of Assessments and Applications

Using Plastics Europe LCI Information

In order to produce plastic products, energy resources are consumed. Currently such energy resources are almost entirely obtained from non-renewable sources, and by using them, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are produced. Nevertheless, even more energy would be consumed and more GHG emissions emitted, if plastic products are to be substituted by alternative materials. This was established in a study by (Pilz et al. 2005).

The study generally follows an “80/20-approach”, meaning that the authors aim to cover 80 % of influences with 20 % of effort that would be required for a more comprehensive study. As a result, a high degree of reliability was ensured for the general magnitude of the overall results, but not for every specific figure in the case studies investigated, where – based on the “80/20-approach” – many (reasonable) assumptions had to be made where data were not easily available.

Calculation of life cycle energy and GHG emission balances: Data for the production phase of plastic products were mostly taken from the “Ecoprofiles” as published by PlasticsEurope. Production data of alternative materials was taken from the database ecoinvent (2007) or comparable sources. In the use phase the calculation covers issues where plastic products have a different impact on energy and GHG emissions compared to alternative products. The effects considered are mainly fuel consumption for transportation, prevented food losses, differences in thermal insulation properties, and fuel savings due to the lower mass of plastic automotive parts.

For example, substituting plastics in the case studies throughout Europe (EU27 + 2) in 2007 would increase the life cycle energy consumption by around

2.140 million GJ per year and the GHG emissions would increase by 110 Mt CO2 equivalents per year.

The energy savings that can be attributed to the use of plastics varies significantly according to the application area, with packaging being by far the most important. A conservative estimate of the impact of the total plastics market has been made by extrapolation using only half of the energy savings and GHG emission reductions of the quoted examples.

The results show that the total life cycle energy needed to produce, use and recover plastic products in Europe (EU27 + 2) is 4.300 million GJ/a and the total life cycle GHG emissions are 200 Mt/a.2 Furthermore it can be concluded that substitution of plastic products by other materials wherever possible would need around 57 % (1.500–3.300 million GJ/a) more energy than currently used in the total life cycle of all plastic products today. In the same way, substitution of plastic products up to the theoretical maximum would cause 78–170 Mt or about 61 % more GHG emissions than the total life cycle of all plastic products today.

In other words, the plastic products on the market today have enabled energy savings of 2.400 million GJ per year, equivalent to 53 million tonnes of crude oil carried by 205 very large crude oil tankers.

The GHG emissions saved (124 Mt per year) are equivalent to the total CO2 emissions of Belgium in the year 2000 (UNFCCC 2009) and are also equivalent to 39 % of the EU15 Kyoto target regarding the reduction of GHG emissions (Pilz et al. 2010).

 
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