May 27th, 2023
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a method used for evaluating the environmental impact connected to every stage of a commercial product's life cycle. This method relies on the company’s initiative to collect data regarding the life cycle of its products. Then, organizations such as Eco-invent harmonize the data collected, using LCA tools such as Simapro.
The results obtained from an LCA are quantitative and qualitative, just like a scientific experiment. An LCA starts off with hypotheses, then data collection, an explanation of results, and finally, general conclusions are drawn.
Example: Meat Industry LCA
The LCA of the meat industry includes evaluating the resources used before, during, and after a product's life. For instance, a certain amount of land is needed before a steak can reach a consumer's plate. This land includes the grounds needed to cultivate the food to feed a cow and where the cow will reside. Agricultural machinery is also used to feed and look after the cattle. Likewise, water is needed for the land and to sustain the cow throughout its life. The land used also reduces levels of biodiversity as monoculture is often used to grow food for cattle.
In addition, the abattoir and the meat packing factories may use fossil fuels just as the vehicles used to transport the packaged meat to supermarkets do. Meticulously quantifying the different sections of a product’s life cycle allows producers to observe where to invest, in order to reduce their environmental impact.
Conducting a LCA
The overwhelming amount of criteria to consider gives the impression that LCA is tedious and challenging. However, LCAs benefit companies and societies in the long run. Changing the life cycle of a product may require small, short-term expenses, which can allow a long-term reduction of its environmental impact and reduce the company's costs of production.
LCAs are not simple tasks, but they are not extremely difficult either. This impression originates from a lack of knowledge rather than the difficulty of the task at hand.
A rule of four can be used to conduct an LCA. The four steps include: defining the goal and scope of the LCA, its life cycle inventory, its life cycle impact assessment, and its life cycle interpretation.
(1) Defining the goal and scope
The goal and scope of an LCA study must be determined. This means defining the purpose and scope of the LCA and its functional unit. The goal is often aimed at reducing the environmental impact but also addresses the target positions; state officials, and consumers.
Concerning the scope, this entails determining the start and finish of the LCA cycle. Ideally, it would present itself as a ‘cradle to the grave’ assessment, but it can also be a ‘cradle to the gate’ analysis; in which case, the cycle ends before the product reaches the consumption stage. The selected scope is based on specific reasons such as; too much complexity, or the unnecessary analysis of a product’s end of life.
For example, the life cycle of a food product often stops once it is consumed. Having strict regulations on the scope and calculations of LCAs allows more potential for comparison between products, and establishes a Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), which would allow the comparisons of different LCAs within the same method.
Finally, the “impact categories or performance indicators” are chosen when conducting an LCA. For example, with the PEF, there are selected categories of environmental impact: climate change, ozone depletion, ecotoxicity for aquatic freshwater, human toxicity cancer effects, human toxicity non-cancer effects, particulate matter, ionizing radiation, photochemical ozone formation, acidification, eutrophication terrestrial and aquatic, resource depletion water and minerals, and transformation.
(2) Life cycle inventory
The second step of an LCA is the life cycle inventory (LCI). Paired with the selected categories distinguished when determining the goal of an LCA, this step allows data to be quantified and collected. The creation of the energy and material flows extracted from and released into the environment occurs. As an illustration, a product's inputs might be materials, water, and energy, and its outputs might be the completed product, any byproducts, and any releases into the air, land, or water. This is the most time-consuming step since it maps and evaluates the production processes and supply chains.
(3) Life cycle impact assessment
Following the LCI, a life cycle impact assessment is conducted (LCIA). This step includes associating the LCI to impact indicators. For example, climate change is measured with CO2 kilograms, water depletion in cubic meters, fossil depletion in oil kilograms, and terrestrial acidification in SO2 kilograms.
(4) Life cycle interpretation
The fourth and final step of an LCA is the life cycle interpretation. It analyzes, quantifies, and rates the outcomes of LCI and LCIA and provides information on product design, manufacturing, and downstream activities. It enables the development of ecodesign, where life cycle interpretations can help to make well-informed decisions for lessening and mitigating the effects on the environment or increasing the long-term sustainability of products and supply chains.
Although the steps outlined above are solid guidelines, challenges concerning LCAs remain. For instance, products may be produced in numerous facilities worldwide, using various fabrics and fibers. Brands must enlist all supply chain partners to measure the environmental input and output of their industrial processes. The time needed to assemble information scattered across the globe is time-consuming, and more so, as LCAs have not been systematically produced in the past.
However, moving forward to push companies to provide evaluations of their LCAs, checked by a third party, can allow this multicriteria process to become the norm. If states and consumers want more information and transparency concerning the life cycle of products, companies will have to adapt, and the PEF must be implemented to compare products.
Furthermore, improved harmonization of LCA research is needed to lessen the differences in LCA studies. For example, LCA experts may struggle to evaluate the data compiled since they are not experts in all sectors of production. To help resolve this issue, increased cooperation between LCA specialists and researchers from various fields of competence is needed. Likewise, non-experts, such as consumers and entrepreneurs, should also be provided with education and training to advance sustainable development in all aspects of society.
A Historical Reminder
Finally, people might think LCAs are a recent phenomenon, and it is idealistic to envision companies using LCAs to reduce their environmental impact. On the contrary, LCAs have a long history, broken down into four parts:
(1) from the 1970s to the 1990s conception, (2) from the 1990s to the early 2000s standardization, (3) during the 2010s and early 2020s its elaboration, and finally (4) the upcoming years and decades that will hopefully see the flourishing of a more comprehensive analysis and the diffusion of knowledge regarding this framework.
Individuals concerned about their environmental impact often attempt to make sustainable decisions but with a lack of direction. First, we’re directed to stop using paper, but wait, data centers use a lot of energy. Next is to stop eating meat, but wait, this exotic fruit came from abroad.
LCAs help quantify and measure what guides a decision process. With the PEF, ways to standardize LCAs are starting to develop with more transparency. Already, European laws, such as the European Green Claim, increasingly regulate environmental claims, and LCAs with the PEF method. They are becoming more and more mandatory in Europe, in order to carry out environmental claims without greenwashing.
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