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Life Cycle Assessment: A Key to Sustainability Management

Life Cycle Assessment: A Key to Effective Sustainability Management

Sustainability is a hot topic these days. It's often viewed as a hazy concept, but life cycle assessment provides a scientific way to measure environmental impacts and take concrete action. In this blog post, we'll outline the notion of life cycle assessment, its benefits and key stages.

What is life cycle assessment?

The life cycle assessment methodology (LCA) is an environmental impact measurement technique, often a part of sustainability consulting services, that considers a product's lifespan, from manufacture to disposal. It encompasses factors such as energy use, emissions and waste output, and depletion of natural resources.

LCA is essential for businesses that want to minimise their environmental impact. It provides reliable quantitative data that can be used to identify areas of improvement and find opportunities to develop more sustainable products and processes.

Companies should evaluate the total environmental impact of their activities or product, which is where the LCA methodology comes in handy. It's essential to assess an entire business activity rather than just one part because many products have hidden ecological impacts that may not be immediately obvious, such as shipping raw materials to a factory or disposing of a product at its end of life.

Key benefits of life cycle assessment

Conducting an LCA of your product provides valuable insights into its environmental performance and the factors that influence it, such as the choice of materials and power sources. The key benefits depend on different stakeholders' perspectives, but here are some of the commonly cited ones:

A holistic view of the impact

An LCA lets you see the big picture by looking at your product's life cycle from manufacturing to disposal. It helps you identify ways to make improvements, evaluate the need for changes in operations or supply chains, and establish and optimise sustainability goals such as carbon reduction and energy efficiency.

Deeper insights

The LCA offers enormous benefits when it comes to innovating with products and materials. Knowing which items in your supply chain have the most potential to impact the environment positively can help you make more informed choices about how best to proceed.

Additionally, LCA provides a way to compare and test out different alternatives, particularly for products that are made from a combination of several materials. Access to these results gives you a solid scientific basis for improving production processes for alternative fibres and working collaboratively with suppliers on research and development projects to increase the environmental benefits of your innovation efforts.

Empirical data

LCA provides rock-solid environmental data to back up the sustainability claims you make about your products. Energy and emissions must be accounted for along a product's life cycle to determine its true environmental impact. Studies based on LCA provide much-needed credibility, both with stakeholders and customers, when it comes to assessing just how sustainable your products really are.

Sustainable brand

LCA is a powerful marketing tool that can help your brand stand out in the industry striving for sustainability. By providing data-driven transparency, you can build trust with consumers while showing them the positive environmental attributes of your products. LCA gives you a competitive advantage by enhancing your brand value and making your product pitch more compelling.

The four steps of life cycle assessment process

The emergence of the LCA methodology can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s but lacked consistency. The first steps to standardise the process were made in the 1990s, resulting in International Organization for Standardization (ISO) creating today's LCA standards.

Today, LCA methodology is a popular tool used as part of sustainability initiatives that can be divided into four steps: goal and scope definition, life cycle inventory, impact assessment, and interpretation. Let’s walk through each stage.

stages of life cycle assessment

Step 1: Goal and scope definition

The first stage of the LCA process provides the foundation for further analysis and ensures that results are relevant and meaningful by providing an understanding of what is to be analysed and what is to leave out, and how to do it. After this stage, you should have answers to such questions:

  • What is the reason for conducting the assessment?
  • What is the assessment's subject, also known as the functional unit? For example, will it be a product, process or activity, or some elements related to it?
  • What are analysis boundaries? What life cycle stages of the product are to be included in the assessment, and what to exclude?
  • Is there a time frame for the evaluation?

Life cycle assessment example: goal & scope

Let’s take a laptop as an example, to better understand each step of LCA. Here are the possible outcomes of goal & scope stage:

  • Goal: The goal of the LCA study is to evaluate the environmental impacts of a laptop throughout its life cycle.
  • Functional unit: The functional unit for the study is one laptop computer that meets the average usage and performance expectations of a typical user, over a 5-year period.
  • Analysis boundaries: The scope of the assessment includes the entire life cycle of a laptop computer, including raw material extraction, manufacturing, use phase, and disposal or recycling. The geographic scope is unlimited.
  • Timeframe for evaluation: The study will evaluate the environmental impacts of a laptop over a 5-year period, which is the average lifespan of a laptop according to industry reports.

Step 2: Life cycle inventory (LCI)

The second stage involves collecting data on resources used and waste generated throughout a functional unit's life cycle, including raw materials, emissions, energy consumption, etc. The data can be gathered from various high-quality sources, such as industry reports, product specifications, and other relevant sources of information. The streamlined data collection process at this stage can be easily achieved with different software solutions. For example, ELEKS Dakar can automatically gather accurate data on electricity consumption and related emissions. The collected data is further used to calculate environmental impacts of a functional unit in the next stage.

DAKAR - a software solution for fast and accurate power system analysis.
DAKAR System

Life cycle assessment example: LCI

By collecting data at each stage of the functional unit's life cycle, you can get different datasets, for example, on materials needed to manufacture a laptop (engineered plastics, steel, copper, aluminium and precious metals like gold, platinum and palladium, etc.), on energy and water consumption associated with its production (190,000 litres of water are used and 1,200kgs of earth dug and mined to produce the components for laptops) and energy consumption of the laptop during its use (on average a laptop consumes 1.433 kWh per month).

Step 3: Impact assessment

Now that all the relevant data has been collected, it's time to begin the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA). It is where one takes inventory of all the data gathered to evaluate and quantify potential environmental or human health damage.

Life cycle assessment example: LCIA

A laptop, on average, emits 422.5 kgs of CO2 over its lifespan – including production, transportation and first 4 years of use. At the end of a laptop’s life cycle, recycling programs are designed to recover materials used in its manufacture for reuse. However, according to NSCEP, only 38% of laptops disposed in 2009 were actually collected for recycling - the rest ended up in landfills where their reclaimable components could no longer be used.

Step 4: Interpretation

Without interpreting the data, making informed decisions or recommendations based on the findings would be impossible. This stage also involves identifying areas for improvement and waste minimisation.

Even though LCA results can be interpreted at any stage of the assessment, the interpretation after all the data has been collected gives a complete picture and ensures that all aspects are considered. As a result, one can make the best conclusions and recommendations.

Note that the examples described above have been taken from various reports and research and are meant to demonstrate what kind of outcomes a product's life cycle assessment could have. The actual results of an LCA can be more or less detailed depending on your needs.

Final thoughts

The LCA is essential for businesses wanting to reduce their environmental impact and develop more sustainable products and processes. LCA provides a comprehensive view of a product's impact, offering invaluable insights into the factors influencing its sustainable performance, like the choice of materials or power sources. And because it involves all four steps of goal and scope definition, inventorying, assessment and interpretation – with rock-solid data to back up sustainability claims about products – LCAs help businesses gain consumer trust, enhance brand value and get ahead of the competition.

Do you want to learn more about life cycle assessments or conduct one?
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