Life Cycle Assessment 101: Why Does it Matter?

Life Cycle Assessment 101: Why Does it Matter?

Disassembled camera - http://www.flickr.com/photos/cedwardmoran/ / CC BY 2.0

LCA IX is the annual meeting and conference of the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment. It brings together hundreds of academics and professionals in environmental life cycle, as well as industry, government, and NGOs. I was at the event in Boston because I focus on sustainable engineering and design. One aspect of that is developing techniques to integrate life cycle assessment (LCA) into the product development process. I am somewhat of an outsider in this club, but I do admit I left the conference with renewed vigor to find the intersection between LCA, sustainability and product development.

The goal of the conference was to discuss methods of LCA to promote sustainability in products, industries, infrastructure and companies. It was an interesting gathering of professionals from Europe, Asia and the Americas. On the whole, it was both an inspiring and daunting four-day experience. It is promising that the field is advancing quickly, but that hint of isolation lingered, as if you are among the few people on the planet that get the potential of this technology. It was like being at a meeting of a secret society. If you’re in, you know the lingo and you understand the importance, but if you’re not, it seems confusing and exclusive. But this idea needs to change.

As an engineer in product development, I was naturally struck at how few engineers and designers were there. Yes, aspects of the conference were very academic. There were long discussions on data uncertainty. There were lively talks about resolving variance, things that would put those not initiated into the world of LCA to sleep. To be fair, there were engineers there, but by and large, they were the sustainability experts in their companies who are focused on crunching LCA data. They typically didn’t have much emphasis on design tasks, and they typically work in roles external to the product development process

The product development engineers and designers, however, were largely absent, which highlighted how the two communities are not efficiently communicating or collaborating. Sustainability is treated as an externality and it is not being integrated into product development. There isn’t a clear understanding about how sustainability lends itself to designing product functionality. This disparity is largely for two reasons: a lack of a common language and a lack of familiarity of each other’s job functions. As is typical with building any multidisciplinary team, it is important for people to understand what each discipline brings to the table. There is a huge opportunity to integrate sustainability experts into product development. That opportunity is being missed.

What does LCA bring to a product development team? As most engineers will appreciate, it provides ecological data and analysis. LCA brings a quantifiable dimension to a product’s sustainability. Using industry data, an LCA evaluates the ecological impacts resulting from materials, manufacturing, usage and disposal of a product. It is a detailed and in-depth process that probes every component of a product. Teams using LCA commonly wait until late in the design process, such as when detail drawings are completed, to complete an assessment. At this stage, many design features are set and difficult to change. This leads to frustration and tension between the sustainability experts and the project team.

For the greatest ecological impact, life cycle thinking should start at the early stages of product development. It also educates the whole project team on applying life cycle thinking to current and future design decisions. It reduces guesswork in selecting materials, designing assemblies, manufacturing processes or designing power consumption scenarios. Engineers and designers using life cycle thinking also can reduce the intensity and time required of the final full-product LCA by communicating necessary product data more efficiently.

Understanding LCA matters to product engineers and designers, as it is a tool that uses quantifiable analysis to evaluate sustainability metrics. As these tools and skills develop over time, they also lead themselves to ever more sustainable future products. While life cycle thinking does not guarantee a product will be “fully sustainable” once it hits production, it can improve the overall sustainability of the product.

In my next column, I'll delve into defining LCA.

Kimi Ceridon is a sustainability/mechanical engineer and founder of Kalepa Tech LLC, which applies product development, engineering and design principles to developing technologies that make a positive social impact on the world. She has more than eight years of industry experience with engineered thermal solutions, industrial equipment, ruggedized field equipment, consumer goods and medical devices.

Disassembled camera - http://www.flickr.com/photos/cedwardmoran/ / CC BY 2.0