NORSUS researchers Valentina, Simon and Cecilia are in Dublin this week at the SETAC Europe conference LCA sessions are covering a wide range of topics over the five days of the conference.
This time the NORSUS team is focussing a lot on plastics and microplastics and how they are included in LCA, with Cecilia co-chairing a session on Reducing Plastics Impacts: Integrating Risk Assessment, Life Cycle Analysis and Material Flow Analysis Towards a Circular Economy together with Susanne M Brander (Oregon State University) and Andrea M Amadei (Politecnico of Milan).
Valentina is active in the Microplastics Interest Group, co-chairing the topical discussion on Understanding Microplastic Fate and (Eco) Toxicity Through Interdisciplinary Collaboration together with Susanne M Brander (Oregon State University), Amila Abeynayaka (Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)), Roland Hischier (Empa – Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Science and Technology). She also presented her poster Linking Material Flow Analysis With Plastic Related Impacts: How to Make Progress With What We Know on Monday.
Simon has focussed on recycling and system expansion, presenting his poster Applying System Expansion with Multiple Functions to address the overall system burdens of recycling in comparison to other Circular Economic material strategies during a poster spotlight presentation. The SETAC programme always consists of interesting presentations and discussions on the state-of-the-art of LCA and the links to environmental toxicology and chemistry.
Plastic releases to nature have a high risk of causing impacts on ecosystems and humans. The potential replacement of traditional fossil-based plastics with PHA is 100 % for mulch film, 100% for control-release fertilizer, approximately 50% for geotextiles and 100% for dolly ropes. Microplastics from PHA are degraded by bacteria, fungi and other biological processes and thus the risk of damage to organisms over time is much lower than for traditional plastics.
The aim of this project is to understand where recycled plastic should be used. The project will analyze the environmental impact from using recycled plastics in product applications with different lifetimes. For example, how beneficial is it to recycle packaging material (short lifetime) in furniture products (longer lifetime). The project will also study the impact of different recycling systems on these results. Which type of products should be recycled in closed loops rather than open loops? Or are reuse solutions preferred? A better understanding of these dynamics will help policy makers and companies to make well-informed decisions when designing new circular systems.
NORSUS has examined the literature about PHA and considered the microplastics issues related to its use as a replacement for conventional plastics for mulch film, geotextiles, control-release fertilizer and dolly ropes. This report summarizes the findings based on the literature and a rough MFA performed for these products.
Microplastics ending up in nature as a result of end-of-life processes for plastic packaging is a serious environmental concern, and was addressed in the Packnoplast project through sampling at three sites: one biogas facility in Norway and two thermoplastic recycling plants, one in Norway and one in The Netherlands.
The amounts of microplastics ending up in soil from biogas digestate was estimated to represent 0.4-2 mg/kg soil per year if 6 t/daa of biogas digestate is used as fertilizer. Food packaging is estimated to represent 75% of this. The amounts of microplastics measured are significant, but too small to affect soil properties even on a time-scale of decades. The risk of adverse effects on soil quality, plant growth or soil organisms seem very low at the current predicted rates of plastic inputs to soil. Since plastics are virtually non-degradable, they are still prone to accumulate in soil, and waste streams recycled to soil need to address and prevent plastic contamination even better than today.
Thermoplastic recycling plants are handling large amount of plastic, and during processes in the plant, microplastic are generated. Concentrations of microplastic particles varied from 7 to 51 particles per liter in the effluent water from the two plants. Discharges of effluent water are often through the sewer system and/or into a water body. Today regulations regarding discharges of microplastic are missing. Sand filter treatment of the effluent water was a promising treatment technique to remove the microplastics. Background concentrations of microplastic, comparable to pristine areas, were found in blue mussels sampled outside the thermoplastic recycling plant in Norway. Knowledge about the risk imposed by microplastics to the aquatic environment is today not known.
Through her PhD thesis, NORSUS researcher Valentina Pauna developed a new methodology for information flow to turn environmental estimates into prediction.
Information Flow Analysis (IFA) focuses on data and information flows from many different fields of study that are relevant for almost any environmental problem.
The idea behind the IFA methodology is to think about how data can link fields by revealing their direct and indirect synergies.
Valentina Pauna chose to focus on microplastics in her PhD, and a central part of her work was done out in the field where she extracted microplastics from sea cucumbers.
– But I also needed to understand the surrounding metrics because meta data is critical for analysis and assessment. We need to look at the sea water, the sediment, and everything around the sea cucumber to get all the data points we need to map the real consequences of pollution, not just from monetary value or a toxicological standpoint, but holistically, Valentina explains.
The key areas of Valentina’s study were ecotoxicology, toxicology, risk assessment, life cycle assessment (LCA), material flow analysis, environmental monitoring and sampling, and decision making. To cover the complexity of fields and attain a more complete data overview, she developed the IFA methodology.
– The methodology is relevant for almost any environmental problem because environmental issues that we have, like anthropogenic pressure on the environment, are inherently complex, and so is the social ecological system. We are all very connected, emphasizes Valentina.
Born and raised in Colorado, USA, Valentina took her PhD at the “Parthenope” University of Naples, Italy. After her master’s degree in Climate Science and Solutions at Northern Arizona University in the US, she wanted a break and worked as both a ski instructor and climbing coach while searching for vacancies.
– It turned out I needed several years of experience – or a PhD - to get hired. I had thought about it, but was not set on what to do, says Valentina.
She went to Italy visiting family friends, and to avoid the trip leaving a full gap in work, she volunteered at the lab of Ecodynamics and Sustainable Development at ”Parthenope” in Naples.
– The people I was working with were in the PhD programme Environment, Resources and Sustainable Development. So, I decided to apply for the PhD, and I was accepted into the program, tells Valentina.
She wanted to focus on a “new” problem that needed to take into consideration “valuation”, and found microplastics to be a current issue. Her work is also related to one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), SDG 14: Life Below Water, which is consistent with the current EU interest in the SDGs.
At the same time as she worked with her PhD thesis, she was a member of the scientific committee in a project of marine impacts and LCA, called MarILCA. There she met senior researcher Cecilia Askham from NORSUS, who liked Valentina’s thesis concept.
Askham asked her to collaborate on another deliverable, and for the two last years they have been working on an article together with other risk assessment, ecotoxicologist and life cycle assessment experts.
– The article is focusing on plastic and aiming to get marine impacts in lifecycle assessment. We have tried to extract from all these people what kind of data is needed and what data we have available. Is there more metadata that they can extract from their experiments that can supplement our research, or is it completely unrealistic for us to ask about for instance the specific size of each individual microplastic particle? Is that even relevant for us? That article really helped me draw the connections between those fields of study based on data and then apply that to an actual case study area, Valentina explains.
Today, she and Cecilia are colleagues at NORSUS. Valentina has been working at the headquarter in Fredrikstad since December 2021, and in May 2022 she successfully defended her PhD thesis “Addressing new global environmental problems: An interdisciplinary approach to assess the impacts of microplastics on marine ecosystems” and was titled senior researcher.
The 29-year-old American has moved to Fredrikstad and enjoys her new Norwegian life.
As the institution has great flexibility for research, she is interested in studying other fields than microplastics.
– At NORSUS, a part of what I am working on is continuing my microplastics interdisciplinary research interest and research basis. Another part of it is focused on lifecycle assessment and lifecycle impact assessment, and a third part of it is learning about the practical application of LCA through the environmental product declarations. – I have found a place with creative and similar people to me who also want research freedom, says Valentina Pauna.
FACTS ABOUT VALNETINA’S PHD:
“ADDRESSING NEW GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS: An interdisciplinary approach to assess the impacts of microplastics on marine ecosystems”
• Was among the first 3 researchers to publish literature in which bibliometric analysis was used with a focus on microplastics (MPs)
• Applied an interdisciplinary approach to understanding marine MP pollution by participating in field sampling, extraction, and laboratory analysis of MPs and using this knowledge to propose a feasible method for validating MP emission estimates, by acknowledging the limits of environmental sampling and laboratory analysis
• The thesis consisted of:
– Literature review to understand best practices in sampling and extraction of MPs
– Sampling and analysis of sea cucumber, sediment and seawater from Punta Campanella, Italy
– Proposing a general reporting protocol for MP research studies
– And developing a new method to connect field sampling and analysis to “big-picture” environmental assessment
• Development of a new method called Information Flow Analysis (IFA), which connects relevant fields of study through their information and data output, in this case with respect to Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the context of microplastics
• The thesis has an overarching aim to contribute to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water, by proposing methods for filling crucial data gaps that are hindering the progress of marine MP research
From January 1, 2023, there will be new and stricter requirements for separation of food waste and plastic waste!
This applies to municipal waste (households and industry) and agricultural plastic.
Read more about the requirement on regjeringen.no
The municipalities must achieve a sorting rate of at least 55% from 2025, 60% from 2030 and 70% from 2035. NORSUS (back then, Østfoldforskning) carried out the impact assessment together with Mepex in 2017, and has therefore contributed to the knowledge base to the design of the regulation.
There are several previous studies on single use plastic bags and their alternatives for shopping. The need for a study for Norwegian conditions arose as the bags used in Norway were perceived by industry as of high quality and multifunctional (used as bin liners by Norwegian consumers). The seemingly poor performance of multiuse alternatives in other Scandinavian studies motivated NORSUS to want to perform such a study. Thus, the actors involved had different preconceptions, but a common interest in performing a robust study. This study will be made public and used to inform Norwegian consumers, thus a critical panel has been involved during the whole study.
This study was commissioned by Plastretur (Green dot Norway) and was carried out by NORSUS. The overarching goal has been to quantify the environmental impacts of Plastretur’s system for collection and material recycling of plastic packaging waste from households in Norway, and to identify factors which have large impacts on the results.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology was applied to calculate the environmental impacts of collection and treatment of plastic waste resources, as well as the avoided emissions when recycled material substitute virgin material, and when energy from waste substitute other energy carriers. The current system of sorting and recycling plastic waste was compared with an alternative with no sorting, where plastic waste goes to incineration with energy recovery together with residual waste. The assessment is made for the treatment of the amount of plastic waste sorted from Norwegian households during a year.
The plastic collection of household plastic waste in Norway consists of three systems, and each system is analysed and summarised to quantify the annual environmental impacts:
Note that the results for the three systems are not comparable since different functional units (representing different plastic compositions and quality) have been used for each system.
Specific data were collected, e.g. from Plastretur, ROAF and IVAR, to represent these systems to the extent possible. When specific data were unavailable, generic data were utilized. Four environmental impacts were assessed, including climate change, freshwater eutrophication, fossil resource scarcity and fine particulate matter formation.
The results from the study show that the Norwegian system for sorting and material recycling of plastic waste contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 72 300 tonnes CO2 equivalents compared to the alternative with no sorting where all plastic is incinerated instead. The system for sorting in households contributes to a reduction of approximately 51 000 tonnes CO2 equivalents, and the sorting facilities of ROAF and IVAR contribute to a reduction of approximately 10 500 and 10 800 tonnes CO2 equivalents, respectively, compared to incineration. In municipalities with sorting in households, each kg sorted contributes on average to an emission reduction at 2.0 kg CO2 equivalents compared to the same amount being incinerated.
The results from this study show that sorting and recycling of household plastic waste is preferable to incineration with energy recovery in terms of climate change and fossil resource depletion. In terms of fine particulate matter formation and freshwater eutrophication, on the other hand, incineration with energy recovery gives lower impacts. For fine particulate matter formation, this is a result of higher avoided impacts from incineration compared to avoided impacts from recycling and incineration of plastics in the systems for sorting and recycling of plastics. For freshwater eutrophication, this is due to impacts from the resources needed for recycling processes, such as electricity, while incineration avoids contributions to freshwater eutrophication when substituting Norwegian district heat generation.
Critical factors affecting the results include:
Transport and energy use have low impacts on the results.
In the future, Plastretur is advised to collect more specific data from the sorting- and recycling facilities, which to various extent had to be modelled using generic data. More information on recycling rates per plastic type, the quality and market of recycled materials and what type of material that is substituted by these recycled materials would be beneficial. Furthermore, Plastretur is advised to select sorting- and recycling facilities that produce high quality recycled material that in turn can substitute virgin plastics.
This project has not included a comparative assessment of the different sorting systems (sorting at source compared with residual waste sorting facilities). In such a study the comparison must be done based on the amount of plastic waste generated in the households. As more data is available for the different systems, it is recommended to set up analyses with the aim of a direct comparison of the different systems to better understand the implications of choosing one system over the other. In such a study, it would be interesting to address under what circumstances that one of these systems becomes preferable to the other. This could be done by, for example, assessing how well consumers need to sort the household plastic waste for the sorted at source system to be environmentally preferable over a sorting facility system where plastics are disposed with the residual waste.
NORSUS has conducted Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) to determine what the most environmentally friendly alternatives to single-use plastic products are. The project was commissioned by Oslo Municipality and the knowledge will inform purchasers of single use products in the Municipality.
Here you find the publication.