Hermansson, F., Janssen, M. & Svanström, M. Allocation in life cycle assessment of lignin. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 1620–1632 (2020).

DOI: 10.1007/s11367-020-01770-4

Lignin extraction in pulp mills and biorefineries are emerging technologies. Lignin is always the product of a multi-output process. Assessing such processes using life cycle assessment (LCA) requires the environmental impacts to be divided between the co-products of the system, referred to as allocation. This article explores different allocation approaches for lignin and illustrates the influence of the choice of allocation approach on the climate impact in a case study.

Ten different applicable allocation methods were found in literature and two more were developed. Lignin production in a Kraft pulp mill using the LignoBoost process for lignin extraction was selected as a study object for the case study, and due to limited data availability only climate impact was considered. A cradle-to-gate LCA was done for the study object, and all of the twelve allocation approaches were applied; for eight of the methods, factors that strongly influence the results were identified and varied. Finally, the results were put in the context of cradle-to-grave LCAs from literature for different possible uses of lignin to give an indication of how important the choice of allocation approach can be when assessing lignin as a substitute for other raw materials.

Results and discussion
Results show that all allocation approaches tested were applicable to the special case of lignin, but each one of them comes with inherent challenges. Factors that often have a large impact on the results are (1) market and price of different outputs; (2) what is seen as the main product or the driver of the system or system changes; (3) what the surrounding system looks like and hence what other products will be displaced by outputs. These factors can be particularly challenging in prospective studies as such studies are future-oriented and consider systems that do not yet exist. Finally, the results show that the choice of allocation could have a significant influence on the climate impact on the cradle-to-grave climate impact of the final product.

We recommend for LCAs of lignin-based technologies that allocation methods are very carefully selected based on the goal and scope of the study and that when relevant, several methods are applied and factors are varied within them in a sensitivity analysis. In particular, the driver(s) of the system’s existence or of changes to it, sometimes reflected in market prices of outputs, should be carefully considered.