Ask three people how a life cycle assessment (LCA) works and you may end up with four different answers.
Conceptually, LCA is simple. It’s a tool to measure the environmental and social impacts of a product, service, or some output throughout its life cycle. Typically, LCA includes four stages:
1. setting a goal and scope (e.g., system boundary, level of detail)
2. collecting and inventorying necessary data
3. conducting impact assessment (additional information to understand the significance of the data)
4. interpreting the results
Running a life cycle assessment – whether you’re a manager, analyst, engineer, or other professional – is more complex. You need to collect data from all stages of the life cycle: raw material acquisition, manufacturing, production, transportation, use, reuse, maintenance, and eventual disposal and waste management.
If it’s your first time running an LCA, it’s likely intimidating. In this piece, we unpack the LCA and clarify how the tool can benefit organizations.
The Winding Road of LCA
We're not simplifying an LCA into a few steps. Complexity is part of what makes LCAs useful. Organizations can use LCAs to understand their processes and chart new paths – as a sort of map.
Maps help us make sense of our world: they “brilliantly condense and capture complex notions about space, scale, topography, politics, and more.” LCAs can be a map for organizational inputs and outputs – typically materials and products or services. Like maps, they standardize information. They identify potential paths. And, like maps, LCAs are told from a particular perspective or even bias. An LCA’s goal and scope defines the focus of the study, and the questions it is intended to answer.
Many Roads to Improvement
Different organizations, in very different industries, use LCAs to integrate sustainability into their decision-making processes. Many examples show that LCAs support continuous improvement and sustainable development of products, services, and even policies.
We spoke to a number of organizations about their LCA experiences. They might get different results, but all gained valuable insights. LCAs helped these organizations navigate – and ultimately move forward.
General Electric Company
Using LCA to Improve Product Environmental Performance
GE’s Ecoassessment Center of Excellence applied LCA in partnership with GE Lighting to identify how the transition from high-intensity discharge lighting to LED lighting has improved product environmental performance. The LCA identified areas where incorporating ecodesign principles into new product design and development could provide additional benefit. For example, GE’s outdoor LED solutions, evaluated with LCA, showed 45-72 per cent less environmental impacts than the high-intensity-discharge solution and demonstrated that 49-72 per cent of the benefits come from use-phase energy efficiency improvements.
“When developing new technologies, it is important to know where to focus your efforts for the most meaningful environmental improvements,” says Angela Fisher, Sustainability Leader at GE. “LCA helps us to identify these hotspots and supports us when prioritizing new and more efficient solutions.”
Going forward, GE Lighting plans to integrate LCA in broader innovation processes around a green product strategy. Minimizing product impact is a key goal of GE’s “ecodesign” activities, says Bill Flanagan, Director of GE’s Ecoassessment Center of Excellence.
City of Hamburg, Germany
Using LCA to Spur Dialogue between Companies & Government
Regulations increasingly hold firms accountable for the life cycle impacts of their production and supply chain. In 2016, the Senate in Hamburg, Germany defined new policies for environmental procurement, refusing to purchase certain products with council money. They drew on LCA in making their decisions.
Kerstin Bockhorn, an environmental scientist for the City of Hamburg, said the policy had multiple goals: reducing product-related costs currently assumed by the government, making companies more environmentally conscious, and increasing citizens’ knowledge about the environment.
Hamburg's ban on single-serve coffee machines, in particular, received a wave of global media attention. These coffee machines use individual “pods” to deliver the coffee; the pods are made of plastic or aluminum and are difficult to recycle.
Aluminum and plastics companies approached Hamburg to discuss the policy. These interactions, Bockhorn says, “showed us that through policy changes we can create an impact on companies to take action.” Going forward, Hamburg plans to focus on collaboration “Many local authorities are interested to take over the same policies,” says Bockhorn. The Senate also plans to work with companies and other stakeholders to find sustainable solutions.
PAC, Packaging Consortium
Using LCA to Identify Emerging Issues & Innovate
In 2005, polylactic acid (PLA) emerged as a packaging material predicted to revolutionize the packaging industry. It was the first plant-based packaging material. Recovering PLA from the waste stream was thought to be straightforward.
Yet after PLA entered the waste stream, the packaging and waste industries quickly realize that PLA contaminated other recyclables. It required separate end-of-life treatment. “An early LCA could have helped the industry foresee these complex feedback loops,” says Downham.
Now, PAC works with industry on LCAs to identify possible issues throughout the life cycle of packaging material. In 2015, they released an LCA on single-serve coffee pods (See also: Executive Summary). Illustrating the different findings that can result from LCAs, PAC came to a different conclusion than the Hamburg Senate.
“The LCA proved the footprint of single-serve coffee was actually smaller than the environmental footprint of brewed coffee,” says Downham. Consumers brew coffee in many different ways – for example, they may heat up and brew an entire pot, but not drink it all. Coffee pods remove many of these variables. “The coffee pod itself controls the environmental footprint.” In a sense, it’s a bit like regulatory policy for coffee consumption.
According to Downham, these insights could shift efforts to coffee pod recovery and product innovation instead of attempting to eliminate a product with high consumer demand. ““Using a scientific, fact-based assessment validates reality versus perception, which is often emotionally driven,” says Downham.
New Insights Show the Way forward
Each organization highlighted here benefitted from LCAs: gaining information to help the organization reach its goals. LCA helps GE identify ecodesign opportunities and prioritize new and more efficient solutions. The City of Hamburg sent a strong message to address consumer waste. And, PAC, Packaging Consortium focused its improvement efforts in the packaging industry.
As these organizations chart new territory, they’ll continue to use to LCAs to improve their outputs.
Applying the LCA in Your Organization
Here are some tips for working with the complexity of LCA.
Communicate with value chain partners. Communication is at the core of LCA. “The life cycle perspective offers an opportunity to engage with a variety of stakeholders around defining project goals and outcomes,” says GE’s Angela Fisher. Though sometimes burdensome, data collection efforts can lead to meaningful relationships and learning opportunities for partners. GE’s Bill Flanagan sees communication as a fundamental part of LCA. He explains that an “[LCA] cultivates space for partners to talk about the shared responsibilities that exist in the value chain.”
Recognize that credible studies are expensive. Cost constraints mean that many organizations can’t perform an LCA for every single output. Reid Lifset, editor of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, notes that efforts exist to develop systems for LCAs of product portfolios, rather than individual products, to address this. PAC, Packaging Consortium focuses LCA efforts on product development generally. “Applying LCA for every packaging solution is just not realistic,” says Downham. Instead, PAC leverages LCA research done around the world from credible and recognizable sources.
More positively, cost constraints can lead to valuable conversation. “We have to talk through cost and other constraints together to understand the different viewpoints,” says Downham. "We want to bring different viewpoints into this discussion to have transparent collaboration to get everybody talking." The result can be a more holistic perspective and innovative solutions.
Stay with the process. LCAs can quickly become complicated. It may be tempting to simplify the process or look for shortcuts. But it’s important to keep the integrity of the process. “A life cycle assessment requires us to develop a deep understanding of the system,” says Jon Dettling, US Managing Director of Quantis International. Quantis is a consultancy helping companies define, shape, and implement environmental sustainability solutions specializing in LCA.
As with statistics, LCA results can be used – or manipulated – to serve predetermined goals. But using an LCA as a validation exercise robs it of its potential. Stay with the complexity, address it, and reap the rewards of the journey.
- NBS’s executive report on Measuring and Valuing Environmental Impacts provides an overview of how to think about environmental impacts from your products and services.
- The Journal of Industrial Ecology and the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment provide peer-reviewed insights into different lifecycle approaches and findings.
- A recent article provides more insight into the coffee pod consumption challenge: Environmental Implications of Consumer Convenience: Coffee as a Case Study
...to the following people who provided rich information through interviews and article review:
- Kerstin Bockhorn, Environmental Scientist, Authority of Environment and Energy in Hamburg, Germany
- Jim Downham, President & CEO, PAC, Packaging Consortium
- Jon Dettling, US Managing Director, Quantis International
- Angela Fisher, Sustainability Leader, Ecoassessment Center of Excellence, GE
- Bill Flanagan, Director, Ecoassessment Center of Excellence, GE
- Reid Lifset, Yale University