Creating Sustainable Impacts Part 2: Lifecycle Analysis (LCA)

10 Aug


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As discussed in Part 1 of KTL’s series on Creating Sustainable Impacts, sustainable materials management (SMM) broadens the ideas behind integrated waste management (IWM) to examine all the environmental impacts of material production and consumption, not just waste diversion or recyclability. It considers the entire lifecycle (i.e., extracting, manufacturing, distributing, using, and end-of-life management) of a product and/or process. Adopting sustainable materials management (SMM), organizations can improve their triple bottom line (TBL)—reducing their environmental impacts significantly, while still increasing profit—and contribute to the overall sustainability of our world.

Analyzing the Entire Lifecycle

These SMM solutions are most effectively identified through a lifecycle analysis (LCA). As the name implies, an LCA considers potential environmental impacts at every stage of a product’s life. An LCA can demonstrate that seemingly obvious solutions are not always the best solutions. For example, non-recyclable packaging may actually have fewer environmental impacts than recyclable packaging if it is lighter and occupies less space. Understandably, solutions like this can seem counterintuitive to waste management professionals, but this example demonstrates the importance of considering the impacts of a material across its entire lifecycle.

LCAs do not replace the basic principles underlying EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy, especially the importance of source reduction and waste prevention. In fact, LCAs generally show that most of a product’s environmental impacts occur earlier in its lifecycle (i.e., upstream) vs, at the end of its life (i.e., downstream). Thus, choosing a different raw material—or finding ways to use less—is often more impactful than end-of-life waste management solutions.

But as LCAs will show, even this concept of reducing material use is not a given for all products. For example, food packaging is vital in reducing food spoilage and subsequent wasted food. Reducing or eliminating packaging may save material, but in the end, this may lead to more wasted food and even greater environmental impacts.

As consumer goods and related packaging get more complex, an LCA considers the most effective management for materials, including how they are used, potentially reused, and eventually discarded. This ultimately helps organizations identify environmental sustainability priorities; move past one-dimensional waste management goals; and then design, select, and manage products accordingly.

Conducting an LCA

LCAs identify and quantify inputs and outputs in a process and use data to assess the potential environmental impacts across the lifecycle. According to the Sustainable Materials Management Coalition, this allows more informed decisions that:

  • Evaluate environmental consequences of a given product.
  • Analyze the environmental tradeoffs associated with one or more specific products/processes.
  • Quantify environmental releases to air, water, and land in relation to each lifecycle stage.
  • Compare the potential environmental impacts between two or more products/processes.
  • Identify potential impacts to one or more specific environmental areas of concern.
  • Provide a comprehensive view of the environmental aspects of the product or process and a more accurate picture of the true environmental tradeoffs in process and product selection.

ISO 14040 defines the principles and frameworks to adequately conduct an LCA, while ISO 14044 specifies the related requirements and guidelines. An ISO LCA is conducted in the following four stages:

  • Goal and Scope: What do we want to measure (i.e., product/company/service)? The LCA objectives, scope, and boundaries need to be carefully selected and clearly framed.
  • Lifecycle Inventory: What data do we need? Collect all the inputs and processes to be measured (i.e., raw materials, energy used/purchased, supplier data). The inventory data is used to assess the energy, water, and materials used, as well as identified environmental releases.
  • Impact Assessment: What is the impact of the lifecycle inventory? Impact assessments take the results of inventories and convert them into more easily understood impact categories, such as global warming potential or carcinogenic potential.
  • Interpretation: What does this all mean? (i.e., How high are our emissions? How do our products compare? Can we improve them? Can we improve our processes? What are the biggest levers for us?)

While not all LCAs need to follow the rigors of these ISO standards, it is useful to incorporate lifecycle thinking such as this into SMM decision-making. In some cases, it might be as simple as considering the potential environmental ramifications of major steps in the value chain. Adopting this lifecycle perspective will help to provide a clearer understanding of the environmental implications of everyday choices.

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