Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an internationally standardised methodology (ISO 14040). LCA helps to quantify the environmental pressures related to goods and services (products), the environmental benefits, the trade-offs and areas for achieving improvements taking into account the full life-cycle of the product.
Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) and Life Cycle Impact assessment (LCIA) are consecutive parts of a Life Cycle Assessment, where:
- Life Cycle Inventory is the collection and analysis of environmental interventions data (e.g. emissions to e.g. air and water, waste generation and resource consumption) which are associated with a product from the extraction of raw materials through production and use to final disposal, including recycling, reuse, and energy recovery.
- Life Cycle Impact Assessment is the estimation of indicators of the environmental pressures in terms of e.g. climate change, summer smog, resource depletion, acidification, human health effects, etc. associated with the environmental interventions attributable to the life-cycle of a product. The data used in LCA should be consistent and quality assured and reflects actual industrial process chains. Methodologies should reflect a best consensus based on current practice.
LCA has found widespread applications in product development in industry, marketing of products, and within policy making to name a few. It is a cornerstone of the European Integrated Product Policy, IPP and the new Thematic Strategies on Waste Prevention and Recycling and on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources. These aim to reduce environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of products, with a specific focus on the impacts in general, those related to waste, and those related to resource consumption, respectively.
A framework for LCA has been standardised by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in the ISO 14040 series. It consists of the following elements:
- Goal and scope definition defines the goal and intended use of the LCA, and scopes the assessment concerning system boundaries, function and flow, required data quality, technology and assessment parameters.
- Life Cycle Inventory analysis, LCI , is an activity for collecting data on inputs (resources and intermediate products) and outputs (emissions, wastes) for all the processes in the product system.
- Life Cycle Impact Assessment, LCIA , is the phase of the LCA where inventory data on inputs and outputs are translated into indicators about the product system's potential impacts on the environment, on human health, and on the availability of natural resources.
- Interpretation is the phase where the results of the LCI and LCIA are interpreted according to the goal of the study and where sensitivity and uncertainty analysis are performed to qualify the results and the conclusions.
Many business associations and companies in industry already use the life-cycle approach in the framework of sustainability. LCAs have been used increasingly by industry to help reduce the overall environmental burdens across the whole life cycle of goods and services. LCA is also used to improve the competitiveness of the company’s products and in communication with governmental bodies. LCA is used in decision making as a tool to improve product design, for example the choice of materials, the selection of technologies, specific design criteria and when considering recycling. LCA allows benchmarking of product system options and can therefore also be used in decision making of purchasing and technology investments, innovation systems, etc. The benefit of LCA is that it provides a single tool that is able to provide insights into upstream and downstream trade-offs associated with environmental pressures, human health, and the consumption of resources. These macro-scale insights compliment other social, economic, and environmental assessments.
The public sector equally makes use of life cycle thinking in stakeholder consultations and in policy implementation. This ensures that the big picture is taken into account in policy-orientated environmental assessments, considering upstream and downstream trade-offs. LCA is a good tool for this and contributes to efficient product policy by providing additional valuable information on environmental performance of goods and services. LCA can contribute to the analysis of the environmental performance of production and consumption patterns on various levels.
For example, it can be one of the tools to apply life cycle thinking in the implementation of the EU’s thematic strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources, and the thematic strategy on prevention and recycling of waste.
Information from LCA can also support public policy making in eco-design criteria setting, such as contributing to performance targets within the Environmental Technology Action Plan (ETAP) and for energy-using products within the EuP Directive, in green public procurement (GPP), and in environmental product declarations (EPDs).
According to my professional experience, one of the best software tools available nowadays is SimaPro by PRé Consultants. With a considerable amount of specific libraries, it means one of the most attractive options for developing Life Cycle Assessment. It is a very powerful tool with an attractive graphical output.
However, it has to be kept in mind that the use of LCA is merely a decision supporting tool, rather than a decision making tool, since it has a specific focus. It particularly tends to exclude economic and social impacts, as well as the consideration of more local environmental issues. It is therefore necessary to use it in conjunction with other tools to assist in identifying areas of potential improvement.
And at last but not least, a video about the Life Cycle Assessment as part of Strategic Sustainability for Product Design by Sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu (Autodesk). Click and select 720p HD for better viewing.
— Source: European Commission, European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment, Autodesk Channel.