Review of life cycle assessments of lignin and derived products : Lessons learned

Moretti, Christian; Corona, Blanca; Hoefnagels, Ric; Vural-Gürsel, Iris; Gosselink, Richard; Junginger, Martin


In the last decade, the use of lignin as a bio-based alternative for fossil-based products has attracted significant attention, and the first LCAs of lignin and derived products have been conducted. Assessing side-stream products like lignin and potential benefits compared to their fossil counterparts presents complex methodological issues. This article provides a critical review of forty-two peer-reviewed LCAs regarding lignin and derived products. Methodological issues and their influence on the LCA results include the choice of the modeling approach and system boundaries, functional unit definition, impact categories considered, type of data used, handling multifunctionality and biogenic carbon modeling. The review focused on climate change impacts, as this is also the main impact category considered in most studies. Other impact categories in the comparison between lignin-based products and counterparts were also discussed with examples from the studies. Based on ten lessons learned, recommendations were provided for LCA practitioners to increase future consistency of environmental claims made about lignin and lignin-based products. The finding suggest that the environmental performance of lignin-based products is significantly affected by both 1) LCA methodological problems such as allocation practices and biogenic carbon modeling and 2) technical aspects such as the percentage of lignin in the composition of products and the selection of the fuel to replace lignin in internal energy uses. Beyond this, the reviewed LCAs showed that often lignin-based products offer better environmental performances than fossil-based products, especially for climate change.