What is a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)?
A Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is the scientific process of understanding which impacts occur as a result of the materials that move through our economy (1). It is a complex and deeply detailed method that is used to quantify the environmental impact of making a product exist and the outputs that occur as a result (1,2,3). In LCA, researchers create an inventory of resources used and pollutants generated in the processing of the raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, use, recycling, and final disposal of a product (2,3).
LCA has been utilized in many industries to estimate the effects of products and processes on over 90 different impact categories such as climate change, air and water quality, human health, ecosystem function, natural resource depletion, eutrophication of waterways, ozone-depleting potential, and more (1,3). LCA helps to avoid landfill, incineration, and treatment by a fully utilizing raw materials and considering the waste as a by-product that could have further use (3).
Life cycle analysis can be traced back to the 1960s, when worldwide concerns on the depletion of limited raw materials and energy resources arose. These concerns drove interest in finding ways to understand and forecast the supply and utilization of resources and energy. Standardization of LCA methods has sought to maintain flexibility while ensuring that there can be consistency and clarity in reporting (3).
How to Conduct an LCA
The LCA process is a systematic approach that consists of four phases: goal definition, inventory analysis, impact assessment, and interpretation. Goal definition and scoping is when you define and describe the product. Inventory analysis is the process of quantifying energy, water and materials usage and environmental releases (e.g., wastewater discharge, solid waste disposal, and air emissions). An impact assessment is then carried out to assess the potential human and ecological effects of the energy, water, and material usage, and the environmental releases identified in the inventory analysis. The fourth stage is evaluating the results of the inventory analysis and impact assessment to aid in selecting the preferred product, process, or service for your company. You can then move forward with a clear understanding of what data were to generate the results3. LCAs should always be peer reviewed if the information is going to be published publicly (1).
LCA data should be for the entire life of the product. Some companies only focus on their packaging, but this is often a much lower impact aspect than the actual product. Additionally, some companies simply consider “end-of-life” when designing a product (e.g., making it biodegradable) but this narrow focus can lead to uninformed decision making, increased environmental impacts, and unintended outcomes (1).
Multiple organizations have developed methods for LCA, each using a different analytic approach (3). Although it is one of the most effective tools we can use to investigate the impacts that actions in the economy have on the planet, carrying out a LCA can be confusing, complex, and not mention time consuming! (1,3). A lot of companies look to consulting companies to lead them confidently and capably in completing an LCA.
How are LCAs beneficial?
Using LCA promotes sustainable design and redesign of products and processes. This can lead to reduced overall environmental impacts, including the reduced use and release of toxic and non-renewable materials. LCA identifies which materials and processes within a products’ life cycle are likely to have the most significant impacts. These assessments give a detailed outline of the benefits and drawbacks of a product or process, which allows decision-makers to select the most effective solution for their companies (3).
By performing an LCA, decision-makers can compare the ecological and health impacts of two or more rival products or processes and make informed decisions. Completing an LCA can also help gain stakeholder acceptance for a planned action by analyzing the environmental trade-offs associated with one or more products or processes (3).
1. Acaroglu, L. (2018, 3 5). A Guide to Life Cycle Thinking . Retrieved from Medium: https://medium.com/disruptive-design/a-guide-to-life-cycle-thinking-b762ab49bce3
2. AliIlgina, M., & Gupta, S. M. (2010). Environmentally conscious manufacturing and product recovery (ECMPRO): A review of the state of the art. Journal of Environmental Management, 563-591.
3. Science Direct. (2020). Life Cycle Analysis. Retrieved from Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/life-cycle-analysis