Local systems, global impacts: Using life cycle assessment to analyse the potential and constraints of industrial symbioses: Dissertation

Laura Sokka

    Research output: ThesisDissertationMonograph

    3 Citations (Scopus)


    Human activities extract and displace different substances and materials from the earth's crust, thus causing various environmental problems, such as climate change, acidification and eutrophication. As problems have become more complicated, more holistic measures that consider the origins and sources of pollutants have been called for. Industrial ecology is a field of science that forms a comprehensive framework for studying the interactions between the modern technological society and the environment. Industrial ecology considers humans and their technologies to be part of the natural environment, not separate from it. Industrial operations form natural systems that must also function as such within the constraints set by the biosphere. Industrial symbiosis (IS) is a central concept of industrial ecology. Industrial symbiosis studies look at the physical flows of materials and energy in local industrial systems. In an ideal IS, waste material and energy are exchanged by the actors of the system, thereby reducing the consumption of virgin material and energy inputs and the generation of waste and emissions. Companies are seen as part of the chains of suppliers and consumers that resemble those of natural ecosystems. The aim of this study was to analyse the environmental performance of an industrial symbiosis based on pulp and paper production, taking into account life cycle impacts as well. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool for quantitatively and systematically evaluating the environmental aspects of a product, technology or service throughout its whole life cycle. Moreover, the Natural Step Sustainability Principles formed a conceptual framework for assessing the environmental performance of the case study symbiosis (Paper I). The environmental performance of the case study symbiosis was compared to four counterfactual reference scenarios in which the actors of the symbiosis operated on their own. The research methods used were process-based life cycle assessment (LCA) (Papers II and III) and hybrid LCA, which combines both process and input-output LCA (Paper IV). The results showed that the environmental impacts caused by the extraction and processing of the materials and the energy used by the symbiosis were considerable. If only the direct emissions and resource use of the symbiosis had been considered, less than half of the total environmental impacts of the system would have been taken into account. When the results were compared with the counterfactual reference scenarios, the net environmental impacts of the symbiosis were smaller than those of the reference scenarios. The reduction in environmental impacts was mainly due to changes in the way energy was produced. However, the results are sensitive to the way the reference scenarios are defined. LCA is a useful tool for assessing the overall environmental performance of industrial symbioses. It is recommended that in addition to the direct effects, the upstream impacts should be taken into account as well when assessing the environmental performance of industrial symbioses. Industrial symbiosis should be seen as part of the process of improving the environmental performance of a system. In some cases, it may be more efficient, from an environmental point of view, to focus on supply chain management instead.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor Degree
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Helsinki
    • Melanen, Matti, Supervisor, External person
    • Kauppi, Pekka, Supervisor, External person
    Award date16 Sept 2011
    Place of PublicationEspoo
    Print ISBNs978-951-38-7746-0
    Electronic ISBNs978-951-38-7747-7
    Publication statusPublished - 2011
    MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


    • industrial ecology
    • industrial symbiosis
    • pulp and paper industry
    • life cycle assessment
    • case study
    • Natural Step System Conditions
    • Finland


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