What are life cycle assessments?

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) provide an analysis of the impact of a product or service on the natural environment.

In a nutshell:

• LCAs are helpful tools for understanding the impacts of different products/services on the environment or setting sustainability goals.

• The lifecycle of a product/service can be split into five stages which involve the use of natural resources and creation of emissions.

• The five life cycle stages are; production (A1-A3), construction (A3-A4), the use stage (B1-B7), end-of-life (C1-C4) and the potential for reuse, recovery or recycling (D).

• Environmental Management Consultants can help streamline the production of LCAs.

• Life Cycle Assessments are used in the production of Environmental Product Declarations.

Many different variables are considered when assessing the impact a product/service has on the environment. There are five main stages of a product's lifecycle and within each phase, natural resources (such as energy and materials) are used and emissions are created.

What are the different stages of a product's life span?

Firstly, the raw material of a product must be extracted which, once complete, leads to manufacture. Following the production of the product, it must be transported and distributed which is the third stage. The fourth and fifth phases involve the usage and finally waste disposal of the product.

The cycle above is an example of a cradle-to-grave lifecycle, however, there are 3 other variations depending on the depth of analysis needed for a product. Different LCA models include cradle-to-gate, gate-to-gate and cradle-to-cradle which describe the cycle in which the final phase feeds into a new life cycle.

What's involved in a life cycle assessment?

The assessment itself  involves four phases, as outlined by The ISO standards:

1. Goal and scope: The first part of the LCA assessment involves defining the goal of the study (intended application, audience and publicity of the report) and the scope: the function of the product/service, which activities should be included and the allocation procedures. ‘Allocation’ is the process of dividing environmental impacts among products or services that share a common production process or input. Lastly, the assumptions, limitations, data quality requirements, the type of critical review (if any), and the type and format of the report must be reported to complete this stage.

2. Life cycle inventory analysis (LCI): This stage involves gathering and measuring data on the inputs and outputs of processes and activities throughout the life cycle of a product/service. This data collection, known as LCI, shows the material and energy flows linked to the product or service and serves as the foundation for evaluating its environmental effects.

3. Life cycle impact assessment (LCIA): In the life cycle impact assessment stage (LCIA), the data collected in the previous stage are used to assess the significance of the environmental impacts of the product/service. The impacts are defined through various impact categories, such as the impact on human health, global warming potential, acidification and ozone depletion.

4. Interpretation: In the final phase of an LCA study, the findings from LCI and LCIA merge to pinpoint environmental hotspots, draw conclusions, recognize limitations, and offer recommendations. When completing the interpretation stage, you must ensure it aligns with the study's initial goals and scope and consider that the results are comparative and don't forecast actual impacts or risks.

As you can see, the process of producing LCAs is often a lengthy and complex task, which is why some companies use Environmental Management Consultants, such as Blue Marble, to help streamline the procedure. The consultants assist by validating and modelling the data contained in a LCA.

LCA’s are used in the production of Environmental Product Declarations which can be shared externally and therefore are great for evidencing sustainable activity to stakeholders.