Sustainability is a widely used concept, but it is critical to understand what it means and that it is more than just a bunch of production data or a waste reduction plan. Cradle-to-cradle thinking is necessary. The whole life cycle, the production, the use and the disposal of the end product matters.
Microfibrillated cellulose (MFC) is based on one of the most abundant natural resources on earth. Cellulose, the raw material for MFC, is the main structural component in all plants. Its versatility in both sourcing and use gives a perfect opportunity to create new and exciting solutions. To understand the perspective of sustainability and MFC, I will put cradle-to-cradle thinking in the setting of life cycle assessment (LCA).
Why LCA is more than just production data
MFC is sourced from several materials with wood being the most common. This source of raw material gives the MFC a “head start” compared to synthetically derived products. In a complete LCA, cradle to cradle, the way the raw material is sourced is, of course, important. Besides, it is essential to understand that MFC can be produced with and without chemical modification and that this will affect the environmental footprint.
Harvesting from natural sources can also be challenging regarding sustainability. The types of processing, the distance the raw material needs to travel, and how it travels, are among the critical aspects. The closer to your raw material, the better.
The source of energy used ( in the production also matters for the LCA. An increasing number of producers are moving from oil based heating and electricity to more renewable alternatives to decrease the environmental burden of their activity.
However, in my view, the most interesting aspect of the LCA is the usage of the end-products (in my post the focus is in additives and resins). A typical mistake is to focus only on the production data of the product. It is equally important to consider the performance of the product when used.
A concrete example is when you compare a performance additive from a natural source to a performance additive from a synthetic source. The CO2 footprint of the production is one thing, but if the performance of the natural source additive is equal to, or even better than, the synthetic product, a multiplication effect is achieved. Then your customer should change focus from CO2 per kg of their end-product (being a paint or an adhesive, for instance), to how to reduce the total environmental burden. Both regarding energy used to handle the products and the CO2 footprints of the raw material.
How MFC can benefit the LCA
OK, so the environmental impact of both production and usage is important. But how can MFC provide help for manufacturers of intermediates or end-products? Environment and Climate Change Canada have some interesting data on wood supply and the annual harvest of the Canadian forest. The numbers show an abundance of raw material. MFC is sourced from various wood and plant materials worldwide, but using softwood from, e.g. Scandinavian forestry provides a very sustainable start. Producing in markets where electricity and power sources have lower CO2 footprints increases the ability to deliver a low-CO2 product. Borregaard has created one of these reports showing their cellulose Environmental Product Declaration (EPD).
Then to the most important aspect: Dosage and efficiency. Different utilisations of MFC has shown the ability to be at least as effective as other alternatives from less sustainable sources. Borregaard has shown concrete examples on this within the field of coatings, for instance.
The multiplication effect using MFC:
Equivalents CO2 production x kgdosage = Total CO2 in use
Multiply this with your yearly consumption of the MFC alternative, and you quickly start to see the concrete benefits of a more sustainable additive.
An increasing number of sustainable alternatives are entering the market. The key take- away is that it is important to evaluate the complete cradle-to-cradle perspective. Then you see the full potential for CO2 reduction as well as the environmental and resource impacts throughout the entire life cycle.