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Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

What is an LCA process?

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a widely known and well-established methodology for transparent and credible environmental accounting. It’s a valuable tool that shows the environmental impact of a product or service throughout its entire life cycle.

An LCA is used to break down different inputs and outputs at each stage of a product’s life cycle – from raw material extraction, logistics, manufacturing, use, and finally disposal or re-use – and estimates the potential environmental impacts that they generate. The results of an LCA are expressed in several environmental categories, including impacts on climate change (carbon footprint), water use, acidification, toxicity, ozone layer depletion, or respiratory inorganics (particulate matter).

Typically, an LCA would include all life cycle stages. However, in some cases, the LCA can focus on the most relevant stages depending on its goal and scope. The most common terms to express which stages are included in an LCA are:

  • Cradle-to-gate: assessment which includes only the life-cycle stages from the raw material extraction and supply stage, to the manufacturing stage (i.e. up to factory gate) of the product under study. Cradle-to-gate studies are mostly used to assess intermediate products (or materials). The LCA results can be aggregated to calculate the impacts of assemblies and final products.
  • Cradle-to-grave: assessment which includes all the life-cycle stages, from the raw material extraction and supply stage, up to the end-of-life treatment of the product (i.e. including manufacturing, transport to consumers, product use, transport to waste treatment locations, etc).

LCA Standards: ISO 14040 and ISO 14044

The standards for producing an LCA are ISO 14040 (which covers principles and frameworks) and ISO 14044 (which covers requirements and guidelines). In order for an LCA to be verified, the results are reviewed by a neutral third party. This way, the results can be compared to other studies and can be relied upon to show an accurate picture of environmental impact. It is these standards, the ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, that ensure compliance. Since the standards make the LCA results reliable, businesses can confidently factor in the information for setting energy efficiency or emission reduction targets.

Why conduct an LCA?

Consumers and governments are demanding higher attention to resource efficiency and social responsibility. Therefore, it can be extremely advantageous for businesses to measure and market the environmental impacts of their products and services.

An LCA is a great tool for identifying “hot spots” for efficient investments along a supply chain. For instance, materials that are particularly impactful to the environment, or use a high amount of energy, can be seen clearly in the LCA results. This information is then used to select more efficient alternatives, resulting in direct or long-term cost savings.

It is becoming more important to understand the life cycle impact of products and services in order to improve efficiencies and set impact reduction goals. Life Cycle Assessment is a critical part of any sustainability strategy and supports a variety of calculations including:

The results of an LCA can be used in many different ways. For example:

  • To report the environmental impact of your product to your stakeholders by means of a report or a commercial leaflet.
  • To support your marketing department by providing useful environmental information which can strengthen your product value proposition.
  • To help your organisation to identify the hotspots in the value chain of a product.
  • To help in supporting future improvements in product design.
  • To allow you to make an environmental claim (for example an EPD or self-declared claim).

Overall, it supports and enhances your sustainability strategy by contributing credible metrics to show how your company is developing and improving the sustainability of your product portfolio.

Most common types of LCA

Depending on the scope of the study and its intended application, e.g. internal vs external communication, the level of detail of an LCA can differ even though, according to the life cycle assessment frameworks and standards ISO 14040/ISO 14044, there is no differentiation among the types of LCA. In practice, LCA’s can be divided based on their level of description: ranging from a high-level screening to a full in-depth assessment.

  • LCA screening studies: a screening LCA provides a high-level overview of the major impacts or “hot spots” of the different phases of a product life cycle. It provides sufficient environmental insights to identify and understand the main drivers of high impacts within the value chain, as well as the aspects that require deeper examination.

LCA screenings are useful for an organisation to evaluate the environmental footprint of its products. A screening study is used to identify opportunities for environmental impact reduction within the value chain, and also serves to obtain environmental knowledge about a product and thus support eco-design. LCA screenings are also used for internal communication, and for sharing environmental information with business partners.

  • In-depth LCA studies: this LCA is much more detailed and descriptive than a screening study, and aims to provide a comprehensive and complete analysis of the product under study. Most of the time this type of LCA complies with ISO 14040/44 standards and may include a 3rd party review and verification.

In-depth LCAs are useful for an organisation to externally communicate (B2B, B2C) their environmental impact and to make environmental declarations and claims about their products. Examples of the latter are ISO type III environmental claims such as EPDs. Moreover, in-depth LCAs can also be used to make comparisons between products serving the same functions.

  • Comparative LCA studies: according to the ISO standards, when an in-depth LCA is completed with the purpose of making public comparative assertions and claims that an organisation’s product is environmentally better than a competitor’s, 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.

Ecomatters approach to performing LCA's

Conducting an LCA includes a number of key steps. The length and depth of each step depends on the required detail and accuracy of the LCA results. Ecomatters has a long track record of supporting various companies in various sectors with performing LCAs, as is showcased on our case studies page. We can advise and guide you through the process of conducting an LCA or take all steps and activities off your hands. In practice our approach when carrying out an LCA can be described as follows:

  1. Scoping: through direct conversations we make sure to understand the needs of the client and their reasons for performing an LCA, and define and agree on the goal and scope of the study accordingly. Discussions on scoping include understanding to which audience the LCA results are targeted, as well as what their intended use is. In addition, the products under the scope, level of detail, life cycle stages, and impacts to be included are discussed and agreed upon in this first stage.
  2. Data collection: based on the agreed goal and scope of the LCA study, and following a preliminary description of the product value chain, data collection is necessary to make the life cycle model. In this step, the collection of all inputs and outputs (materials, energy, emissions, etc.) from all the life cycle stages included in the product system takes place. This is known as the life cycle inventory (LCI).
    Data is usually collected by the commissioner of the study, with the support of Ecomatters. A data questionnaire is prepared with all the necessary data items to be collected. Depending on the goal and scope of the project, data collection usually includes product manufacturing (raw materials, product characteristics, utilities, waste, etc.), logistics (modes and distances), and product use and disposal.
  3. Product life cycle modelling: based on the defined scope and boundaries, and using the data items collected, Ecomatters will model the product value chain(s). Once the data collection questionnaire is completed, we will process the data, input the data into the model, and conduct the life cycle assessment. Third-party databases (e.g. Ecoinvent or Sphera) are used to model parts of the system outside the control of the commissioner, such as the production of raw materials, supply of energy, and end-of-life treatment.
  4. Results and interpretation: The model is constructed in a specific LCA software (GaBi, SimaPro) which translates the inputs and outputs to actual environmental impacts (i.e. climate change, eutrophication potential, etc). The results of the study include the product footprint for all selected impact categories, but also disaggregated results per life cycle stage, manufacturing process, and activity. During this step the interpretation of the results will also take place, leading to the identification of environmental issues through the value chain, as well as making conclusions and recommendations according to the goal and scope of the project.
  5. Interpretation and results sharing: Usually, we make a presentation to discuss the interpretation of results and outcomes of the LCA together with our customers. Depending on the scope of the project, a report is made as well.

The making of an LCA is an iterative process since, as the study progresses, some changes are likely to occur. These changes may be related to the goal and scope of the study, but also to the availability of data, or technical aspects among others.

Ecomatters Support

At Ecomatters, we have a long history in the field of Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) and conducting assessments. We focus on determining the methodologies that fit your needs best and can help you with the preparation of product claims and environmental product sheets. We follow the ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 guidelines and are proficient with the various types of assessment software (GaBi and SimaPro).

Life Cycle Assessment is a critical step in the development of a solid sustainability strategy, and Ecomatters can help you along the way. Check out our wide range of sustainability services or get in contact with us to see how we can help you develop effective sustainable strategies for your business.

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