Using bio-based material or not? That's the question

by: Mirjam Visser, 2011-04-08 01:27:45 UTC
Sustainability Aspects: Is bio-based always preferable? And if not when is it?

The Story

organic cotton

The USDA, US Department of Agriculture, is pushing forward with its bio-based procurement program. But is bio-based preferable over a technological cycle?

If you look at the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) data of Cotton, even organic grown cotton, you wonder. Cotton is farmer grown but in many regions, where water is scarce, it is not a ecological friendly material since it uses a lot of water in growing as well as in the dyeing of it. And since cotton needs a lot of sun too it is often grown under arid conditions.
The fact that bio-based implies it is bio-degradable might be an invitation to throw your stuff out easily, being food for new bio-based products. The fact is that many bio-based products needs specific conditions to decompose and then it often takes years to do so. It is better to throw a starch-based bag out then a PE-based one but it still is waste.

If you look at LCA of for instance paper coffee cups versus ceramic coffee cups, as performed by TNO (a dutch independent research institute), you see that if you use it only once before you wash it or trow it out, paper is better that a cleaning cycle polluting water but if on the other hand you use the cup during the day, drinking 4-5 times or more cups out of it, before washing up, the ceramic cup scores better than using a new paper cup each time. The behavior of the user is something to take in account.

But just in general it seems that for one time usage, like packaging or cleaning agents and the like, it seems better to make stuff bio-based and easier to de-compost and for other situations it is much better to pick materials on their durability and make sure it takes a long time for the product to end up in the landfill and better still is going to be re-used and recycled. For products with a longer lifecycle you rather would like to go to use recycled materials whenever possible and/or search for durable materials to keep the product going as long as possible.

All depends as said on product and user behavior so try out a few options of lifecycles in our light LCA-tool

I guess the message here is; don’t follow your instincts but make a LCA and think it over how customers are possibly use your products, intended or not.

Product: Bio-based material
Designer: na
Manufacturer: na
Category: bio-based vs technological products


organic cotton
organic cotton
Picture by Treehugger

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