Life cycle assessment (LCA) has come a long way in the past few years, evolving from a niche activity carried out by academics and a few forward-thinking businesses to a mainstream practice talked about publicly by Fortune 500 companies.
But there is still some confusion about what LCA is, what it's good (and not so good) for, and where it might be headed.
What follows here are 10 facts -- and a few opinions -- to help shed some light on this exciting young field.
1. LCA is a tool in a growing field called Industrial Ecology
Industrial Ecology seeks to redefine the global economy from the old paradigm of open loop systems (linear flows of materials where resources are extracted, goods are produced and used, and waste products are disposed) to closed loop models (the goal of which is to mimic nature, where the wastes from one product are the raw materials for another).
2. Think "cradle-to-grave," or ideally, "cradle-to-cradle"
LCA is a "cradle-to-grave" (or, ideally, cradle to cradle) accounting of the key environmental impacts of products and services.
To perform an LCA, you essentially sum up all of the material and energy inputs to the production, use, and disposal of a product; then sum up all of the outputs (air and water emissions, materials, and waste) from each phase; and interpret the results in terms of impacts on human health, ecosystems quality, and resource depletion.
3. LCA is often performed to determine the impact of consumer products
Though there are many uses for LCA, consumer products have long been a prominent target for practitioners. There can be many reasons for this, but it seems likely that it is a response to the growing consumer demand for environmentally-responsible products. The increasing prevalence of product carbon footprints (see next bullet) is a good example of this phenomenon.
4. A product carbon footprint is a type of LCA
There are many ways that LCA can "quantify" the environmental impact of products. One such method is the product carbon footprint, which is really an LCA that focuses on climate change impacts. The increasing prevalence of carbon footprinting can only be good news, as so-called supply chain carbon (that is, carbon emissions that occur outside the direct control of the company selling the final product) make up a very large percentage of the emissions associated with the goods we buy and sell every day.
5. To do an LCA the right way, you need to know (and communicate) the "What" and the "Why"
Why are you performing an LCA? Is it intended for use only inside your organization to make improvements to a product? Or are you intending to "go public" with your findings and make an environmental claim? And what will you be evaluating? Is it a single, consumer facing item (like a can of soda), or is it an entire product line (such as carbonated beverages)? Also, what year will you be evaluating (most recent is always best)? These are the kind of questions you'll need to answer when you state the "What and the Why" of your study (technically called the Goal and Scope), the first stage of any LCA.