This is a short guide outlining:
- What a lifecycle assessment is (according to our interpretation – but note, that different sources will have different ideas of what a LCA is and what it can be used for)
- How to do a lifecycle assessment
- Examples of lifecycle assessments for different products, services and activities
Summary – Lifecycle Assessments
Lifecycle assessments are an attempt to calculate the footprint of something in relation to specified indicators or measurables
Products or materials can be assessed, and put in comparison to one another
The whole lifecycle (from sourcing materials up to disposal or re-use, or even decomposition), or a specific part of the lifecycle can be assessed
One indicator/measurable can be measured, or several can be measured. For example, one LCA may measure just greenhouse gas emissions, whilst another LCA may measure greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, and water pollution
LCAs can make note of the impact of a lifecycle of a material or product e.g. the impact on job creation, the impact on wildlife, the impact on a changing climate, and so on
And lastly, a LCA should specific what data was included in it, and what assumptions were made for the assessment. The use of, or omissions of different data sets and assumptions can change results
What Is A Lifecycle Assessment?
A Lifecycle Assessment (also known as a LCA) is an assessment that attempts to calculate the footprint of a particular product, service or activity in relation to one or several indicators (carbon emissions, water use, land use etc.)
This footprint can be used to understand the potential impact this products, service or activity may have on a particular area of society (the environment, the economy, human health, animals and wildlife, and so on)
For example, a Lifecycle Assessment may try to calculate the carbon footprint of a particular type of animal meat food product. In this instance, we can get an idea of how harmful or beneficial a particular food product may be in relation to another one when it comes to impact on the environmental issue of global warming and climate change
How To Do A Lifecycle Assessment
Lifecycle assessments can be very short and simple, or much more comprehensive, detailed and complex.
In general, a basic LCA may include the following:
Specifying one or multiple products or materials that are being focussed on – for example, comparing the lifecycle of a plastic bag made of virgin plastic to the lifecycle of a plastic bag made of recycled plastic. Another example might be comparing different types of animal meat food products to different types of plant based food products.
Specifying stages of the product or material lifecycle included in calculation – might include sourcing and extracting raw materials, refining materials, manufacturing/processing, transport and delivery, consumption, disposal, waste breakdown and degradation, and so on.
Specifying what measurable is being measured or calculated – for example, carbon emissions, water consumption, land use, emission of specific air contaminants, generation of waste material or substances from production, and so on
Specifying what impact there may be from what is being measured – for example, the impact of carbon emissions on climate change, the impact of water consumption on fresh water supplies or water scarcity, the impact of air contaminants on air pollution and associated human health issues and air pollution related mortality rates, the impact generating and dumping production waste into the ocean, and so on
Specifying what data has been included and not included in the assessment, and what variables and factors have and have not been taken into account – for example, the LCA might include data on production, consumption and disposal, but not material sourcing or refining. Additionally, the LCA may be on a specific product or material in a specific industry, in a specific country or State, using a specific method of production – these variables and factors should be detailed (as production in a different country, using different methods of production may produce different results and data)
Examples Of Lifecycle Assessments
Two detailed and comprehensive examples of lifecycle assessments can be found in the following resources:
LCA Of Different Animal & Crop Products – http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/methodology_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf
LCA Of Different Grocery Carrier Bags – https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf
The Limitations Of Lifecycle Assessments
Read more in this guide about the potential limitations of LCAs.
What Stage Of A Product’s Life Cycle Has The Most Environmental Impact?
Knowing this information is also helpful is focussing on the stages with the most environmental impact, and coming up with more effective solutions to reduce it.