An update on the Composites LCI project

What is the environmental footprint of my products? How green or sustainable are they relative to competing products made of different materials?  What information is out there for my company to use? How do I develop quantifiable data to support my claim? As the composites industry works to meet the needs of a world that is more environmentally aware,these and many other questions are being asked by composites manufacturer seach day.

These questions have been largely answered in many applications for competing materials such as steel,wood and aluminum, but the same cannot be said for composites. However,that is about to change. Since 2009, ACMA’s Green Composites Committee (GCC) has been helping the composites industry understand,compile and report the critical missing in formation needed to make a credible green case for composites. That missing information comprises the Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) for composites.

What is Life Cycle Inventory?


There are environmentally important inputs (e.g., energy, water,materials and other resources) and outputs (e.g., discharges to air, land and water) at every step of the life cycle of a product.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) isthe formal method by which the environmental life cycle impacts of a product are compiled and evaluated.An LCI is the front-end phase of LCA involving the compilation and quantification of inputs and outputs,for a given product system throughout its life cycle. Once LCI data is a vailable, an LCA can be conducted on products using the materials and processes covered in a national LCI database, maintained by the U.S.Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).The NREL LCI database includes information on materials such as steel,aluminum, concrete and wood, but very little on composites. Without readily available LCI data, LCAs on composite products will be very difficult and costly to conduct.

The GCC is addressing this by developing the missing LCI data.In June 2011, at the ACMA’s Inaugural Green Composites Workshop in Chicago, the GCC launched the Composites LCI Project. ACMA selected Franklin Associates, a Division of Eastern Research Group Inc., to help conduct this important project.Franklin Associates has more than 35years of experience conducting LCAs for private companies and industry associations and has completed numerous material LCAs and submitted LCI process data modules for fuels, plastics and other materials to the U.S. LCI Database.

lci-projected-webThe nuts and bolts

In the composites industry, there are thousands of composites materials and more than a dozen manufacturing processes. Developing LCI data for all these materials and processes is a daunting prospect. The GCC decided to maximize value by focusing the Composites LCI  Projecton the most commonly used materials and manufacturing processes.Further, the project was divided into three separate tasks of collecting/compiling fundamental data, developing a report and developing NRELLCI templates that will be used to submit the final data into the registry.

To begin, the Committee agreed in Phase 1 to evaluate two materials, unsaturated polyester resin and E-glass reinforcement materials, and five processes, open molding, compression molding, casting-open molding,vacuum infusion processing and secondary bonding processes. Originally,pultrusion was on the Phase 1 list;however, evaluation was completed separately under the leadership of Dr. Michael Lepech at Stanford University and funded by the National Science Foundation. Future phases are planned and will include other materials and processes, but are dependent on company participation in supporting the required materials and processes, as well as funding.

In total, 25 ACMA corporate members have volunteered to work with Franklin Associates to collect the necessary information. These companies have been working for more than three months collecting the raw data that were needed to comprehensively complete the project task, including general information, material inputs/outputs, water use/consumption,energy use, solid waste and air/water emissions. The shared data was confidentially analyzed and averaged by Franklin Associates, generating representative in formation for each material and manufacturing process that will be shared with the industry.Overall, the two main objective of Phase 1 are to provide individual ACMA members with LCI data on the materials and composite production processes that are specific to their operations for internal benchmarking and decision-making, and to provide ACMA as a whole with aggregated LCI data representative of the average production on those same materials and processes in a format suitable for submission to the U.S. Department of Energy NREL’s LCI database. This information will be used by public and private stakeholders in preparing LCAs.

Not an easy task by any means,but the results will greatly benefit the industry, especially participating companies. Not only will these 25companies be able to gauge how their materials and processes compare to the aggregated (averaged) data, but their participation provides them the opportunity to take a close look at their manufacturing process flow, the decisions they make and the waste they produce. This top-to-bottom, in depth review can help them redefine their business and marketing plans,identify ways to gain production savings,and better comply with environmental regulations.