Bio-based products are always better than fossil fuel-based products: myth or not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: bio-based products.

In a time where concerns over climate change and depletion of non-renewable resources are increasing drastically, it seems easy to accept that bio-based products are, without a doubt, better than fossil fuel-based products. It just seems logical that it is much more sustainable to use resources that we can grow and maintain under sustainable practices. Bio-based products are part of the natural cycles on earth, such as the carbon cycle, while fossil fuel-based products disrupt the natural systems.

Bio-based products. Source: Wagenigen University

In this new chapter of Sustainability Mythbusters, the question is once more whether the logical and commonly accepted assumption is always correct. I will present some facts from life cycle thinking and LCA studies that will help us draw a clearer picture to base our conclusions on.

What are the impacts?

In some situations, it can be better to use bio-based materials than fossil fuels. However, it’s important to know that bio-based materials also can result in significant impacts. Let’s look a bit more closely.

Let’s start with the benefits of bio-based products, namely:

  • They have the potential to tackle environmental issues such as climate change, since biofuels can provide greenhouse gas savings and improve air quality. Biomass absorbs CO2 (carbon dioxide) during its growth, which is released again during the use phase or waste phase. That means bio-based products can be considered climate-neutral.
  • Bio-based products help reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, a finite resource.
  • Bio-based products can also help tackle social issues, creating employment and rural development.
The carbon cycle. Source: Earth Observatory

It all sounds great, right? And pretty clear. However, there are some downsides that complicate the scenario:

  • Production of biomass requires the use of fertilisers, which result in emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times stronger than CO2.
  • Fossil fuels are needed to produce the fertiliser and bio-based fuels for agriculture, transport and processing.
  • There is impact from land use or, as we call this in LCA jargon, ‘impact in ecosystems’. Biomass production requires land. Either new land needs to be made ready for agriculture, causing a change in land use, or the land needed to grow biomass needs to compete with the land required for food production.
PLA: Bio-based material. PET, PP, LDPE: Fuel-based. Source: PRé LCA Study

Last but not least, biomass production is a type of agriculture and requires the use of pesticides, which can impact human health.

Different impacts from different biomass sources

Another important consideration is the type of bio-based source we are referring to. In the case of biofuels, there are big differences in impact between first and second-generation biofuels. First-generation biofuels are generally made from commodity crops that can also be used as feedstock, for example: corn, wheat, or sugar cane. Second-generation biofuels utilise non-food crops: co-products, agricultural residues and waste. That makes the second-generation biofuels more efficient, as they generally don’t require new production of crops and reutilise residues which would otherwise end up as waste.

Bio-based products are always better: myth or not?

Status: Myth.

Bio-based products still have environmental impacts, such as potential impacts on ecosystems and human health. From a point of view that considers resource scarcity and climate change, of course, they can still be a great alternative to fuel-based materials. Whether a bio-based product is better or not depends on the specifics of the situation: the type of biomass, the country of production, agriculture techniques used, production efficiency, and other factors.

My advice is to take a look at the entire life cycle of the product you are assessing, including all relevant environmental impacts. Only then will be able to make a well-informed choice between bio-based or fossil fuel-based production methods. 

Uncover more sustainability myths

This is the third part of our ‘Sustainability Mythbusters’ series. See other episodes:

If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, contact us. We are eager to identify more sustainability myths together!

Soledad Contreras

Soledad Contreras worked for PRé as a Sustainability Consultant from 2014 to 2016. As a part of Consultancy team, she coordinated the Roundtable for Social Metrics and provided training in Life Cycle Thinking.

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