Life Cycle Assessment


 - By Kailey Bradt

Life Cycle Assessment

It seems as if we don’t go a day without seeing another article on global warming or how climate change is approaching a point of irreversibility. Significant media attention is given to industrial pollution and vehicle emissions about their negative environmental impacts.

Recently there has been an increase in awareness around the negative environmental impact of consumer packaged goods (CPGs) - and we are glad to see the conversation gaining traction! Unfortunately, the press around the environmental impact of these CPGs tends to focus on the negative impact of packaging, particularly plastics. In addition, the common factor to assess environmental impact in the media is carbon (CO2) footprint. However, focusing only on packaging or CO2 footprint only tells part of the story.

One goal of this blog is to provide an education source to encourage conscious consumption. Our impact on the environment is more than just what we see when we pick up a bottle off the shelf. It isn’t just about packaging or just about CO2 footprint, or any other single factor, for that matter. There is more to consider about a product’s impact and ultimately our impact as consumers.

Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is defined in a 2017 publication Environmental Management as “a technique for assessing the environmental aspects associated with a product over its life cycle.” Essentially an LCA considers the impact of a product or service from the procurement of raw materials through to how the materials are disposed at the end of the product’s life. An LCA does not only consider the material inputs and outputs, yet also accounts for the energy impact associated with the product or service.

One of multiple ways this tool can be utilized is to determine the environmental impact of a product or service. Here, we will focus on an overview of life cycle assessments in relation to their application in which they’re used to evaluate overall environmental impact. Additionally, an LCA can be used to determine impacts in other areas like social impact and impact on human health. Heard of cradle-to-cradle certification? If you have, then you’re more familiar with life cycle assessments than you might think!

Components of a Life Cycle Assessment

Components of a Life Cycle Assessment can vary industry-to-industry. The components are generally described as the following:

  • Procurement
  • Production
  • Distribution
  • Use
  • Disposal

Each component has multiple inputs that relate to the impact of a product or service. Life cycle assessments performed for commercial purposes are completed by trained professionals at an independent laboratory. LCAs can take several months to complete due to the amount of information that needs to be obtained for the calculations. Because of the time constraint associated with a conventional LCA, a rapid LCA can be utilized for product development purposes. A rapid LCA is less detailed and less accurate, however gives companies enough insight to make design decisions quickly.

More Than Carbon Footprint

An LCA utilized to assess impact related to the environment does not just focus on a single environmental factor, but instead a set of them, as defined by an assessor. Commonly in media outlets and marketing campaigns we hear the term carbon footprint. Merriam-Webster defines carbon footprint as “the amount of greenhouse gases, and specifically carbon dioxide, emitted by something (such as a person's activities or a product's manufacture and transport) during a given period.” In an LCA, carbon footprint (CO2) is only one impact category of many.

Impact Categories

As impact categories are defined by an assessor, it is up to the assessor to capture the whole story of impact through the LCA. There are a number of environmental impact categories, a few of which include:

  • Climate Change
  • Ozone Depletion
  • Particulate Matter
  • Freshwater Ecotoxicity
  • Land Use
  • Water Source Depletion
  • Fossil Resource Depletion

As these categories only relate to environmental impact, there are other product impact categories to also consider, such as human toxicity, which, according to Science Direct, “concerns the effects of toxic substances on the human environment,” over an infinite time period and excluding in the working environment.. This is one reason why highlighting only one impact category, such as carbon footprint, of a product does not give the full product story and can be misleading. Even to assess a full LCA on product packaging and not the product itself gives little validation to the overall impact of the product.

There is so much to discuss around product impact and the LCA methodology (and we will continue to dive in!), however hopefully you found this to be a good introduction to get you started..

More to come on this topic!

Read the Details:

Life Cycle Assessment
Cradle-to-Cradle Certification
Carbon Footprint Definition

ImageHannah Thornhill for Susteau