Life cycle impact assessment of microplastics as one component of marine plastic debris

Date of publication 24 August 2020

Authors Saling, Peter; Gyuzeleva, Lora; Wittstock, Klaus; Wessolowski, Victoria; Griesshammer, Rainer.

Sources International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment



Purpose Plastic pollution in marine environments is a severe problem in the world due to misuse and mismanagement of the materials. Microplastics are a specific form of pollutants in this context and its handling is very difficult due to its very small size of particulates. Currently, the impacts of marine plastic debris are not considered. However, this type of particulates can be assessed like other emissions with the systematic and quantifiable approach in life cycle assessment (LCA). It was our goal to find and test first methodological approaches for including impacts of marine litter of microplastics to LCA. Methods The Medellin Declaration on Marine Litter in Life Cycle Assessment and Management raised this issue in 2017 and called for LCA to address the challenges of marine litter. The present research paper focuses on how to integrate plastic debris impacts with focus on microplastics into LCA and gives a suggestion for an assessment approach. Based on a literature review, we considered various impacts to the marine environment of microplastics linked with their kinetics of the fragmentation and degradation. Subsequently, we developed a characterization LCA model for microplastics in the marine environment. We addressed therein the fate of microplastics and their specific eco-toxic effects to different organisms. We compared the impacts of different types of polymers as well and showed how these can be integrated in an assessment using the new characterization model. Results and discussion The assessment of marine litter impacts in LCA was strongly dependent on the number of microplastic particles produced from the original litter over time. These impacts were derived from measurements of the number of microparticles, their densities in the marine environment and their impacts to different organisms. The new characterization model includes the relationship between fragmentation and degradation and can be used for impact assessments within LCA. Conclusion The question where we did not find a finally satisfying solution is the issue of the length of the time horizon of the assessment or the discounting. Those are regarded as subjective and are encountered with sensitivity or scenario analysis. Results from different time horizons can be aggregated to one figure or can be compared separately. Further investigations should be taken for a better understanding of this issue and for concrete solutions because their influence on the results of life cycle assessments is often fundamental.

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