A framework for the assessment of marine litter impacts in life cycle impact assessment
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionEcological Indicators. 2021, 129, . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2021.107918
Purpose Marine litter, mostly plastics, is a growing environmental problem. Environmental decision makers are beginning to take actions and implement regulations that aim to reduce plastic use and waste mismanagement. Nevertheless, life cycle assessment (LCA), a tool commonly used to assist environmental decision making, does not yet allow for considering the consequences of plastic waste leaked into the environment. This limits the application of LCA as a tool for highlighting potential tradeoffs between impact categories and the relative significance of their contribution on a specific Areas of Protection (AoP). A coordinated research effort to cover various parts of the marine litter impact pathway is required to ultimately produce characterisation factors that can cover this research gap. Here, we design a consistent and comprehensive framework for modelling plastic litter impact pathways in LCIA models. This framework is to support such coordinated research progress towards the development of harmonized pathways to account for impacts of plastic litter, specifically to the marine environment. The framework includes an overview of life cycle inventory requirements (leakage to the environment; a focus of other research efforts), and a detailed description of possible marine litter impact pathways, modelling approaches and data(-type) requirements. We focus on marine plastic litter and consider the potential contribution of different impact pathways to overall damage in the main operational AoPs, as well as recently proposed ones. Results and conclusions The proposed framework links inventory data in terms of kg plastic leaked to a specified environmental compartment (air, terrestrial, freshwater, marine) to six AoPs: ecosystem quality, human health, socio-economic assets, ecosystem services, natural heritage and cultural heritage. The fate modelling step, which includes transportation, fragmentation and degradation processes, is common to all included impact pathways. Exposure and effect modelling steps differentiate between at least six exposure pathways, e.g. inhalation, ingestion, entanglement, invasive species rafting, accumulation, and smothering, that potentially compromise sensitive receptors, such as ecosystems, humans, and manmade structures. The framework includes both existing, e.g. human toxicity and ecotoxicity, and proposed new impact categories, e.g. physical effect on biota, and can be used as a basis for coordinating harmonized research efforts.