(661c) Combined Life Cycle Analysis and Environmental Risk Assessment As a Tool to Evaluate the Circular Economy of Plastics

Authors: 
Rothman, R. H., University of Sheffield
Ibrahim Muazu, R., University of Sheffield
Howse, J., University of Sheffield
Maltby, L., University of Sheffield
There is currently over 7.3 billion tons of plastic in the Earth System, and it will grow to be 40 billion tons by 2050. Approximately 10 mega tons of plastics reach the oceans every year; 12 billion tons are projected to be in landfill by 2050. As these are released, the flux of plastics to surface waters, coastlines and oceans is amplified, with significant environmental, social and economic cost. In the global north, plastic ends up in the environment through leakages from waste collection, recycling and disposal, driven by the growth in single-use plastic, with a significant amount of egregious litter and informal disposal. Current understanding of the pathways and fate of plastic in the environment is poorly constrained, with only fragmentary evidence restricted to parts of the cycle. The problem is now part of public consciousness and is on the political agenda nationally and internationally. The work presented here is part of the £1m Redefining Single Use project at the University of Sheffield which aims to stimulate creative thinking across disciplines and explore novel ideas and solutions with potential to deliver more circular economic
approaches to plastics manufacture and utilisation.

Overcoming the negative environmental impacts of our current use of plastics requires both a step change in thinking and innovative and transformative actions. To ensure we are not inadvertently causing more problems by solving one, sustainability analysis is essential. Here we combine the two analytical approaches which dominate environmental policy and decision-making to create a tool suitable for analysing the circular economy of plastics: environmental risk assessment (ERA) and life cycle assessment (LCA). Environmental risk assessment (ERA) couples information on the fate and behaviour of chemicals in the environment with information on the effects of chemical exposure on ecological systems to predict the probability that adverse environmental effects will occur (i.e. risk). Life cycle assessment (LCA) provides an integrative assessment of a product and process by considering the environmental and health effects from the extraction of raw materials to their recycling or disposal (‘cradle to cradle/grave’). The framework of the new analysis tool will be discussed, along with an example of its use to analyse the use of plastics, and alternatives, in the supply chain of milk from farm to café.