Resource chemistry is at the heart of a low carbon and circular economy. Resource strategies are needed to foster the decoupling of environmental impacts and resource use from economic output and human wellbeing. Circular economy covers not only the recycling of materials but also the development of new, more sustainable chemical products and materials. Quantitative evaluation methods such as life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) are available to guide the development and take-up of such chemical products and materials. Integration of assessment methods at methodology and results level allows to get a holistic view on the sustainability performance of emerging technologies that use new chemical products and materials.
The experiences with multiple studies evaluating the sustainability of the technologies to produce and use chemical products and materials such as bio-sourced surfactants and organic photovoltaics as well as the recycling of carbon fibres and metals provide the basis for coming up with recommendations that allow to support the development of more sustainable chemical products materials in the context of a circular economy by the application of Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment. In addition, studies on batteries and electric cars permit to showcase trade-offs between different resource strategies. The idea behind is that resource strategies for the development and take-up of chemical products and materials as well as related technologies can be assessed in a comprehensive way using established sustainability assessment techniques with the aim that human needs can continue to be met through more efficient use of natural resources, recycling and, where necessary, substitution of toxic chemical substances and critical raw materials. As part of these assessments also new environmental challenges such as engineered nanomaterials and dissipative uses of materials like plastics are to be considered.
Usually, the sustainability assessment of the production and use of a new chemical product or material starts with one or more cradle to gate environmental Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies to support the eco-design of the production step. This is done based on lab data but considering upscaling factors to anticipate the application at industrial scale. Challenges refer also to the definition of the functional unit since the future use is often not determined. Hence, as a next step, the scope of the assessment is extended to cover the use scenarios and also end of life options such as landfill, incineration and recycling, and to cover the whole life cycle and to carry out comparisons as far as possible to existing technologies. This assessment allows to determine the most environmentally friendly end of life option and use scenario, which might be also the most attractive one for commercialization. Evidently, the environmental assessment can be combined with life cycle costing in the form of technology assessment, which allows to analyse its competitiveness, too, and can be extended by adding social LCA to a full LCSA. While the assessment up to this stage has been done in an attributional manner, it is recommended to carry out further action by using consequential LCA because this technique allows to demonstrate the environmental impact reduction potential of a technology with the newly developed chemical product or material in comparison to existing solutions at different geographic scales.
In the case of new developments aiming at circularity, the focus of the sustainability assessment will be on the conditions of the recycling processes and the quality of recycled material. The combination at the result level of circularity indicators like the Material Circularity Index (MCI) and Life Cycle Assessment is a way to showcase potential trade-offs between resource strategies aiming at keeping material in the loop and reducing environmental impacts. In a similar way, trade-offs can be shown between strategies aiming at reducing the environmental impact and those minimising criticality related supply risks.