Teijin becomes the first materials company to carry out a Life – Cycle Assessment on its carbon fibers
Evolving priorities on the path to circular development
In its research on high-performance materials, Teijin has always focused on sustainable development, but the metrics used to assess sustainability have changed over the decades. Some metrics are uncomplicated and widely understood—for example, more durable materials don’t need to be replaced as often and lighter materials require less energy to be moved. However, these simple metrics fail to take into account the complex life cycle of materials, particularly the production phase, the use phase in various applications, and after their initial period of use is over and they enter the recycling process.
Developing the ability to measure carbon emissions and other environmental impacts for a given material is a decades-long journey, and it is one that Teijin has taken the lead on, as the first company to carry out a comprehensive life-cycle assessment (LCA) of all its carbon fiber products, announced in 2021.
“You will find in your everyday life a lot of materials produced by Teijin,” says Corporate Sustainability Manager at Teijin, Smitha Sundaram, “especially our carbon fibers, which are stronger and lighter than steel, and so are used everywhere—in planes, cars, trains, modern bridges and buildings. They tend to play a supporting role but are all around you.” The diverse uses of carbon fibers yield many different products—for example, recreational-sports equipment, industrial building materials, and even wind turbine blades.
Given the sheer range of applications of carbon fiber, which can potentially lead to energy and emissions reductions in its use phase, Teijin considers it important to provide accurate emissions data about its carbon fiber to its customers. It has successfully carried out Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies of its carbon fibers, and these LCAs join Teijin’s roster of LCAs for aramids, composites, and other high-performance materials. “Conducting an LCA for carbon fibers is important because despite being widely used, little verified environmental data about carbon fibers is available to customers,” summarizes Sundaram.
The usefulness of LCA data doesn’t stop with Teijin but extends to its customers, who can use the data to evaluate their own environmental footprint more accurately. Also, this information can eventually circulate back to Teijin, forming a loop that will gradually optimize the manufacturing process toward material reduction and carbon neutrality.
“This loop of information is important while implementing circular concepts. The idea is to keep as much material in the loop as possible, which reduces the amount of virgin material we need. We might find uses for our products at the end of life, a by-product of manufacturing or what might otherwise be thought of as waste. We are exploring multiple routes to buying back products containing our materials and ways to reuse them in our production, because to us, it could be a resource,” explains Sundaram. “In the Netherlands, where I am based, Teijin Aramid – our aramid business unit – has been applying material buyback and recycling for over twenty years, which has improved the overall resource efficiency. In the last two to three years, with the increased pressure on manufacturers worldwide to be more sustainable, we see this idea rapidly becoming a necessity in the near future for all businesses,” says Sundaram. “Targets set by the European Union, such as the Fit for 55, which is the EU’s goal to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030, will soon make circularity the norm, rather than a nice-to-have option.”
A truly circular model keeps all material in a constant, infinite loop without adding any virgin elements, but Sundaram recognizes that this model is out of reach for now: “That is the holy grail for the industry, and no one that I know of, is close to accomplishing it. But the world is working towards it, and we can put the LCA to good use to develop practical, low-carbon, less resource-intensive, circular models. With an LCA, we can calculate and track how much material is going in, how much is wasted during production, what the impacts of various recycling processes are, how much material can be brought back into the loop from end users and so on – and what the impact of all this will be on the environment as a whole – the air, water, soil, and so on. This will help us minimize waste and energy consumption so that we can get closer and closer to an environmentally-low impact, circular model for all materials. Our inspiration should be nature, which demonstrates circularity in the truest sense. That gives me hope that this will one day be possible through human ingenuity.”
The LCA is a stepping-stone to a circular model, and it constantly progresses in the scope of both its metrics and its application. “The LCA is as much about gathering information as about what you do with that information,” explains Sundaram. “Where are the hot spots in production? Is the identified energy use required or inefficient? Can we use renewable energy instead? This is a process of optimization that never stops, but it all starts with the LCA.”
In the past, material manufacturers would analyze only those manufacturing processes used in their own factories, but Teijin goes far beyond that. “Of course, there are limitations to what we can analyze and control beyond our factory gates, but the next step is to actively quantify usage benefits and efficiency in the customer-use phase,” says Sundaram. “For this, we have developed a TUV-certified, in-house calculation tool called the Customer Benefit Model or CBM, with which we quantify the CO2 and financial savings due to our materials in a particular application, compared to the Business-As-Usual, over the entire life-cycle of that product. The results of our product LCAs are fed into the CBM and supplemented with real-time, practical data gathered from the industry, as far as possible.”
To create a comprehensive LCA, there must be a flow of materials, but equally important is an adequate flow of information. In a highly competitive field like materials science, however, information is not always readily shared. “This can be mitigated,” Sundaram explains, “by using nondisclosure agreements when sharing proprietary information and by ensuring accuracy and correct terminology so that the chain of information stays strong. Explaining the precise definitions of LCA metrics to customers is also important.”
Transparency and accuracy are key countermeasures for greenwashing, the practice of obfuscating or misinterpreting data to present a veneer of environmentalism. “Being clear with customers about the environmental impact, what is possible, and what is not possible right now is key,” says Sundaram. “But also, letting them know what we at Teijin are aiming for in the future puts us on a shared path with them, where we can use the same metrics and terminology to feel tangible progress. Our LCAs—for example, in the case of aramids—show the great reduction in emissions over time, and customers really appreciate knowing that.”
Standardization across industries and borders will accelerate the effectiveness of LCAs. “In the EU,” continues Sundaram, “they have recognized the benefits of standardizing LCA practices, and there are moves to ensure that the same calculation procedures and methodologies are followed across all sectors. At Teijin, we operate across many territories with different standards for LCAs, so we know this issue all too well. We are also in the process of standardizing LCAs across Teijin Group, keeping the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) standard as the basis. But where there are differences, we are transparent about why a decision has been made and provide third-party certification to support it—an LCA has to be trusted to have value.”
Due to the complex and dynamic nature of sustainability, companies tend to face challenges when it comes to creating internal awareness about sustainability and achieving sustainability targets. Teijin has recognized this challenge, and has addressed it by conducting regular sustainability trainings and webinars across business units. Here too, LCA plays an important role. “We use LCAs to quantitatively explain to colleagues across the globe, within departments, and across product lines what changes are needed and why they are needed – doing this helps us all work together to achieve our sustainability targets,” says Sundaram. In that sense, LCAs are a practical expression of Teijin’s values. Clearly defined metrics and targets can enhance the perception of environmental and social change, transcending well-meaning buzzwords and leading to constructive action. LCAs can help us achieve all this, and more.
On a related note, setting targets is important for achieving not only environmental goals, but also for broader social goals. Sundaram explains, “The moment you set a target, you commit to change. When it comes to Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, setting a target on, for example, Gender Equality accelerates change. At a company like Teijin, where these values are normal, this might naturally happen in time, but a target just gives you that push. Having environmental and social development targets declares your intent and people respond positively to that.”
An understanding of LCAs is needed at all levels of society so that the average consumer can consider sustainability when making purchases. “Teijin engages in analyzing and problem-solving using the results of the LCA, and we have dedicated teams solely for LCA analysis,” says Sundaram. “We calculate the complete eco-profile of our materials, incorporating tangential but important aspects like biodiversity and resource depletion. As a society, we have to go from looking only at carbon footprints to considering the other metrics as well. It is similar to how the SDGs are all inter-connected and go hand in hand – they should not be seen in isolation.”
This comprehensive social approach ultimately brings the benefits of LCAs to the general public. Sundaram regularly speaks at conferences so understands this wider perspective well. “The public are increasingly engaged with environmental and social issues, but we have to communicate the solutions in tangible terms they will understand. Quantifying progress in metrics that relate to people’s lives helps them to act. But I will say, there is a limit to what you can do alone. Talking to other people, sharing ideas, building passion and consensus, setting a common goal, and working together towards this common goal is the way to make change a reality.”
Smitha Sundaram talking in detail about LCA and other issues at JEC World 2022, Sustainability Conference on “Sustainability of raw materials for composites: boosting the circular revolution”.