Life Cycle Assessment of Alternative Fibers

Life Cycle Assessment of Alternative Fibers

The company remains firmly committed to sustainable forest management and the use of Forest Stewardship Council-certified fiber. However, we acknowledge that global demand for the world's forest resources will increase, thus developing and using additional fiber options that can augment our current supply will improve our ability to meet and extend our commitments to responsible sourcing while simultaneously supporting our business goals around innovation, quality and costs.

At the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, Kimberly-Clark announced that it would reduce its use of wood fiber sourced from natural forests by pursuing other fiber types, including (but not limited to) alternative natural fibers.

As a very early step in a broader research initiative, Kimberly-Clark commissioned a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to help inform us of potential environmental benefits and/or impacts of using alternative natural fibers. In addition to the traditional impact areas studied in LCAs, the study provided supplemental analysis on issues such as scale of land use, impacts on biodiversity and biogenic carbon accounting.

We worked with scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT) to assess the environmental impacts of several alternative fibers, as well as the conventional fiber options of Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft (NBSK) fiber derived from primary forests in the Canadian Boreal and recycled fiber derived from waste paper. The alternative fibers evaluated were bamboo, wheat straw, giant cane Arundo donax, and kenaf. Fibers derived from plantation forests or semi-natural forests were not considered in this assessment due to our focus on understanding options to reduce reliance on fibers derived from natural forests. Specifically, the LCA centers on a comparison[1] of NBSK fiber with bamboo, and a comparison of recycled paper fiber with wheat straw, kenaf, and giant cane.

The study was conducted in conformance with the international ISO 14044 standard and LCA best practices. To ensure a robust study, a critical review panel of independent experts was established from members of the following organizations

  • Quantis, a leading LCA consulting firm;
  • Canopy, an independent, environmental not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting the world's forests, species and climate; and
  • The World Wildlife Fund, an environmental not-for-profit organization and the world's leading independent conservation body.

 

The external review panel provided both a validation on the sensibility of the approach, as well as recommendations for further steps and improvements.

The study pushes the boundaries of the leading thinking around responsible sourcing for tissue fibers. The research delves deep into certain issues like the uptake and release of carbon by biogenic sources, the implications of water use and the implications of crop yield on land use biodiversity that are not fully addressed in current LCA studies.

"With an eye to protecting our planet's remaining ancient and endangered forests - and not trading in one environmental issue for another - Canopy has advised and reviewed countless life cycle assessments related to these product lines", said Neva Murtha, Senior Campaigner with Canopy. "We would like to commend Kimberly-Clark and the authors from the Georgia Institute of Technology on the ambitious and leading approach to this assessment and specifically the efforts made to include best practices of measuring biodiversity and biogenic carbon", she added.

Key Findings

Bamboo appears to have less impact than NBSK on most indicators with a significant benefit in land use due to its rapid renewal rate (three years for regenerations) as opposed to 70 years for regeneration of northern softwood trees.

Directionally, the results for wheat straw, giant cane Arundo donax, and kenaf reveal areas of potential for higher environmental impacts relative to recycled paper. However, wheat straw benefits from being an agricultural remnant associated with wheat grain production and is comparable to recycled fiber depending on the allocation of inputs for the production of the original fiber (wheat grain or paper).

The LCA results are summarized in the attached figure and full results are presented in the appended report.

Limitations and Implications

While the findings suggest that alternative fibers show potential to be part of a larger responsible sourcing strategy for Kimberly-Clark, it is important to note that this LCA represents a snapshot of a system with the data and most representative models available at that given time. We acknowledge that, as research progresses and as more comprehensive or refined data, models and methods become available, the LCA will need to be updated and outcomes refined.

The review panel noted the limitations of the various methods used by GIT as well as the assumptions used and the interpretations of the results take into account these important limitations. The panel recognized the use of novel methodology for biogenic carbon accounting which took into account the most recent scientific publications in this field at the time that the LCA was conducted. The GIT authors of the study and independent reviewers noted that the issue of carbon accounting is a very complex and a highly debated issue and that there are no perfectly agreed upon approaches. However, the panel also noted that, as with all cutting-edge scientific methods, there are some aspects of the approach that was chosen that may be subject to discussion.

The LCA authors and the review panel chose to determine the impacts of biogenic carbon using a plot level approach because we were looking at a natural primary forest, i.e., the Canadian Boreal. Alternative approaches such as a landscape level approach may be more appropriate for other forest ecosystems. The authors also did not allocate inputs to forest products other than pulp, another assumption that will differ in other settings.

A key implication of the LCA is a need to strongly consider land use efficiency and the renewal rate of the system when making evaluations of alternative fiber options. These are major influences on the results of the analysis for both land use and climate change and are also influential in other impact categories where land management practices are an influential factor.

A potential implication of the improved land use efficiency of alternative fibers relative to NBSK is that as less land is needed for fiber production, more land might be preserved as natural habitat. The current study is only a first step in understanding how a more efficient use of land may lead to greater preservation potential in natural forested landscapes.

Conclusions:

The LCA findings suggest that alternative fibers show potential to be part of a larger responsible sourcing strategy to secure a sustainable supply chain for Kimberly-Clark's products, but require on-going study.

The LCA has revealed potential areas of impact for each of the alternative fiber types that should be further understood and, if validated, mitigation strategies may be needed if Kimberly-Clark proceeds down the development path towards commercialization of any alternative fiber.

FootNote

[1] Although providing comparative conclusions, the LCA was not conducted with an intention to provide definitive comparisons between fibers, such as to support marketing claims of environmental superiority. The ISO 14044 guidelines on LCA provide specific guidelines for supporting comparative assertions of superiority. Meeting those requirements has not been a goal of the present work.

For additional information, please click on the below links:

Link to Executive Summary of Life Cycle Assessment of Alternative Fibers

Link to Full Report - Life Cycle Assessment of Alternative Fibers

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