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What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

By David Koram
16th November 2020

LCA is a scientific method of assessing the lifecycle environmental impacts of products; from the extraction of the raw materials used in its manufacture, its use by consumers, to recycling or disposal.

Put more simply, LCA is a measure of a product’s total impact on the environment.  To do this, LCA practitioners break a product’s lifecycle into ‘stages’ and model these stages with inputs and outputs. It is widely used by organisations for quantifying the environmental impacts of goods and products ranging from hamburgers to multistorey buildings.

 

 

The different ‘flavours’ of LCA

Full or complete LCAs involve the collection of large amounts of primary data and hence are costly exercises in terms of time and money.  Hence, to avoid unnecessary expenditure, companies embarking on an LCA must evaluate their objectives carefully so that they select the right type and level of LCA.

Partial LCAs can focus on a single lifecycle stage, e.g. transport, and its associated carbon emissions. Thus, they allow companies and other entities to avoid the cost of running full LCAs whilst still gaining visibility on some relevant parts of their products’ environmental impacts.

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Types of LCA

LCAs may fall under one of 3 main categories; Process based, Economic Input-Output, and Hybrid.

For Processed-based LCAs, practitioners use software tools to model the processes that make up a product lifecycle.  Processed-based LCAs can based on either primary or secondary data and are the most detailed type of LCA.  This type of LCA is usually used for a single product (or service).

Economic Input-Output LCAs convert financial data into environmental impacts.  For example, the financial cost of a tonne of steel can be converted to its environmental footprint using EIO-LCA.  This type of LCA is particularly useful in situations when the need arises to carry out LCAs for large numbers of products, although the results are more generic than those of process LCAs.

Hybrid LCAs combine elements of the other two as a way of addressing some of EIO-LCA’s weaknesses in terms of its results.  Another form of LCA called Social LCA that is intended for measuring products’ social impact is being developed, but its use is not yet widespread.

 

Why do companies carry out LCAs?

Companies commission LCAs for a variety of reasons.   These are usual business-driven reasons, and may include the following:

  • Identify environmental ‘hot-spots’ in their supply chains
  • Back up their product sustainability claims
  • Provide data for ‘green’ product design
  • Demonstrate sustainability leadership
  • Reveals opportunities for optimising supply chain efficiency
  • Allows more informed business decision-making
  • Facilitates stakeholder communication
  • Contributes to product and service innovation
  • Meet the demands of customers for sustainable products

How to get started: 3 steps to starting LCA

  1. Set goals and objectives
  • Identify the product, service or process that you want to assess
  • Next, determine which area to focus on, eg:
    i) Packaging
    ii) Transportation
    iii) Processing
  1. Determine impact metric(s) of interest
  • Evaluate key impact metrics with regards to your needs: Metrics include
    i) Carbon footprint
    ii) Water footprint
  • For a single metric, a footprint study may be preferrable to an LCA
  1. Select level and type of LCA
  • If there is a need to i analysis and/or product labelling choose a Complete LCA
  • Alternatively, there are other levels and types of LCA available that are less expensive and time-consuming

 

Further resources

 

In our next blog post on LCA, we will discuss some of its more common pitfalls, and how to avoid or mitigate them.

If you would like to know more about how we can help your company conduct life cycle carbon analysis of products and set ambitious science-based targets to achieve your sustainability goals please email info@carbon.ci