The Importance of An LCA and How A Comparative LCA Goes Further

January 27, 2022 | Industry Standards

A recent environmental law and policy review suggests a shift towards mandatory rather than voluntary, environmental-policy compliance. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scores may become a required element in corporate reporting. Existing standards may become required as the world works to meet environmental goals. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) provides a way to measure a product’s environmental impact throughout its lifecycle. Two ways that a product’s environmental impact can be measured: anLCA and the comparative LCA.

The ISO14000 series of standards provide guidelines for environmental management systems, life cycle assessments, and carbon footprint analysis. The European Union has issued directives on energy consumption and harmonizes its methodologies to establish a comparative framework. Other countries are establishing guidelines that will impact corporate behavior for international organizations. The point of these guidelines is to provide a framework for measuring environmental impacts of products and to draw upon that criteria as a way to distinguish products that are the most beneficial to the environment.

What Is A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is defined as “the compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle.” [1] LCA effectively allows for the establishment of the environmental profile of a given system. A system can be defined as a product and/or the process used to make that product.

The various product stages that a typical LCA spans include, but are not limited to: raw material acquisition, material processing, manufacture and assembly, use and service, retirement and recovery and disposal. Each of these stages can include material and energy inputs as well as waste (liquid, solid, gaseous) outputs.  

Life Cycle Assessment, Subhan Ali, Stanford University

What is a Comparative Life Cycle Assessment?

A Comparative LCA takes the LCA a step further. In order to assert the superiority of a product, that manufacturer must be willing to compare it to another.

Comparative LCA studies: According to the ISO standards, when an in-depth LCA is made with the purpose of making public comparative assertions, and claiming that an organization’s product is environmentally better than alternative options, a comparative LCA is compulsory. Comparative LCAs have additional requirements to guarantee the full comparability of products and must include a critical review by an external review panel.

One of the main reasons why companies perform a [Comparative] LCA is  intending to make an environmental claim. Often what the (especially new and sustainability driven) businesses are striving for is claiming that their product or service is better than alternatives. Formally, that would be called a comparative assertion, and if you want to make one, there is something you need to know about it. You are open for scrutiny.

What You Need to Know Before Starting A Comparative LCA, Ecomatters

ISO 14044 And What The LCA Process Assesses

To determine the potential impact of production and consumption of goods or services on the environment, ISO developed the LCA. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that procedures were put in place to establish a systematic framework. 

The ISO 14044 standard was issued in 1997 and outlined the following four stages of an LCA.   

  • Goal and Scope
  • Inventory Analysis
  • Impact Assessment
  • Interpretation

A 2020 amendment was issued to clarify language within the standard and delineate what an assessment should include. The latest ISO 14044 suggests that an LCA should have:

  • Identification of significant environmental issues
  • Comprehensiveness of the assessment
  • Limitations of the assessment
  • Conclusions and recommendations

An LCA needs to be verified by a third party. A manufacturer can make continuous improvements to the product and its life cycle, but the report itself is not ongoing unless you go through the process again. 

The purpose of an LCA is to gain a greater awareness of a product and to take a hard look at impacts that it may have on the environment including any unintended consequences.

Analyzing Inventory / Collecting Data

The Life Cycle Inventory Analysis (LCI) is the data collection phase where environmental inputs and outputs are identified and quantified. The inventory looks at such factors as:

  • Types of raw materials used
  • Methods of extraction
  • Types of energy used
  • Emission levels
  • Water usage

The data is typically collected by professionals with experience in LCA processes and procedures. 

These professionals may use industry standards, but they attempt to use company-specific data wherever possible. They may look at utility bills to determine water, gas, or electric consumption. They may survey employees or ask for specific information. 

Once the data is collected, a flow model is usually used to show how the data points connect. A flow model can show how the environmental outputs can turn into environmental inputs as the process evolves. Flow diagrams also provide a visual representation that is easier for non-technical participants to understand.

Assessing Impact

How is the third phase of an LCA performed? What steps are followed to ensure an accurate representation of the environmental impact?  Most assessments use the following steps.

Step 1. Define Impact Category Metrics

At the start of the process, impact categories were identified, but the detailed metrics required for each category were not assigned. These metrics need to be reviewed to ensure assessment accuracy. Sometimes, companies may add impact categories after completing their data collection.

Step 2. Classify Data

Data is needed for each impact category to assess the environmental inputs and outputs. During classification, data is placed in the appropriate impact category for analysis. Sometimes, data points may be used across categories. By placing data in the appropriate categories, measuring the impact can be performed consistently for all groupings.

Step 3. Measure Impact

Once the data points are in the right categories, it’s time to calculate the impact. During this process, an equivalent calculation may be required. This number may be a converted value to present all data in the same terms. Without common evaluation criteria, it would be impossible to assess the environmental impact. For example, reporting on climate change requires converting measurements into carbon dioxide equivalents. 

Once the data is classified and normalized, it can be evaluated to determine the environmental impact of a product’s lifecycle.

Identification of Significant Environmental Issues for an LCA

To begin a life cycle assessment there are environmental impacts that need to be reviewed to help define the scope of your assessment.

Waste: Is there hazardous, even radioactive, waste produced throughout the manufacture or even lifecycle of your product.

Emissions: Are toxic fumes being emitted? 

Liquid discharges: If there are liquids discharged in the course of a product life cycle, how are these disposed of? What are the impacts?

Storage use or transportation of hazardous chemicals: Has sufficient care been taken to protect people and the environment from potential exposure?

Energy use: How much energy has been used in the manufacturing process, transportation,  and ongoing use of this product? Is that energy renewable? Is that energy use efficient?

Greenhouse gases: Does the product produce greenhouse gas? 

Each of these aspects (and more) may be quantified to fully determine the impact of a product throughout its life cycle. 

Limitations of The Assessment

For all of the good an LCA can do to foster environmental responsibility, there remain aspects of this process that are unclear. For one, not all LCAs are the same. Assumptions and actual scope of work can vary from study to study depending on the focus and the third party providers of the assessment.

Some argue that the LCA is based on studies and assumptions that assess the real world based on a simplified model. Some LCAs may leave out aspects that others include. These variations can lead to different results and will not necessarily lead to solid conclusions. 

Before embarking on the LCA, particularly if it is a comparative study, an organization will want to ensure that each of the required impacts is being fully addressed. This harmonization will underpin the value of the prolonged effort required to carry out the assessment process.

Conclusions and Recommendations

At the conclusion of the LCA, after an in-depth analysis and calculation of environmental impacts, a third party panel will then verify the data. 

Interpretation of The Results by Third-Party Review Panel

Evaluating the results of an LCA is more than a mathematical exercise. It requires looking at the data in context to ensure that decisions are not made based on assumptions that three is better than four because it is a smaller number. The values need to be evaluated in view of a product’s lifecycle, and changes may be made to that lifecycle, based on those findings. These would include aspects such as:

  • Can the energy consumed during production be reduced?
  • Can alternative materials be used?

With LCA data, companies can begin to decide how to reduce emissions or improve production processes. In the case of the Comparative LCA, the landscape can widen to capture other questions, such as:

  • How does the product’s environmental impact compare to other products?

Based on the answers to these questions, additional LCAs may be required. For example, looking at alternative materials may require multiple assessments to find the most environmentally friendly solution.

Answering these questions can help organizations set project boundaries that ensure completion with valuable results. A balanced approach is often the best approach and in the case where remedial steps need to be taken, the panel may recommend a course of action. 

Closing Thoughts

LCAs are not for the faint of heart. They require time, resources, and a willingness to look below the operational surface. Participating in such an extensive evaluation can uncover unexpected results. In the long term, these findings can result in gains for everyone. That’s why the LCA process—from both a safety and transparency standpoint—is highly-prized.

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