SusValueWaste seminar at NIFU 15th of November, 2016.
When greening products or processes, the greenest alternative is not always self-given. Changes at some point in a life cycle, can make challenges at another stage and result in undesired environmental effects. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a method that thoroughly investigates the impact of all the stages of a product or a process life. It maps and assesses the impacts on health, environment and resources throughout the entire life cycle of a product or product system, from resource extraction to waste handling.
Why do a LCA?
The purpose of LCA is to discover the relevant environmental issues and summarize all material and energy inputs and outputs of a product or process from cradle to grave. The method can be used as a tool for companies in their daily operations or serve as support at a more strategic level. Businesses can use LCA to identify the areas of their production processes where improvements have the most positive impact on environmental or health issues. It can help reduce waste and costs, focus product development, support marketing statements and improve brand image. At a more systemic level, LCA can supply important knowledge when creating policies that aims to minimize the world’s climate challenges.
A method involving high expertise
Few companies perform LCA’s themselves, instead it is outsourced. The technical expertise needed to perform an LCA is not normally an in-house competency of most organizations. LCA practitioners need skills such as an understanding of industrial processes in several industries, knowledge of both public and private data sources and a comprehension of a range of potential environmental impacts (for instance climate change, human and ecological toxicity, and acidification). Performing a LCA is comprehensive and often time-consuming. However, some companies also perform a simplified LCA where they often focus on particular parts of the life cycle.
A four step process
Performing a full LCA involves a systematic set of procedures, and can be divided in four different steps. The initial step is to define the goal and scope of the study. Here the focus is to identify what precisely is being studied and its system boundaries. In the next stage, a life cycle inventory
analysis is conducted. This means creating an inventory of flows from and to nature for a product system. The inventory analysis is followed by an assessment of impacts. This third step evaluates the significance of potential environmental impacts based on the inventory flows. The last step is about interpretation, to systematically identify, quantify and evaluate the information from the three earlier steps, and eventually deliver a set of conclusions and recommendations. Due to the nature of each step, LCA is a highly iterative process, meaning that one often needs to revisit a previous step in light of information developed in a later stage, with interpretation being part of every step.
Standardized management method
A LCA is only as valid as its data. Consequently, it is important that the data used in a LCA is accurate and current. When comparing different life cycle analyses with one another, it is essential that comparable data are available for both products or processes subject to assessment. The procedures of life cycle assessment are part of the ISO 14000 environmental management standards, telling how to fit in what we know about environmental science into management. In particular, the ISO14040 series describe the principles and framework of how to conduct a LCA.
Alternative measuring methods
Many of the current environmental decisions and policies are based on environmental impact assessment (EIA), a methodology to evaluate environmental consequences for a geographically confined space, for instance a production site. The methodology encompasses specific knowledge on a range of environmental subjects, but does neither include a value chain nor a global perspective. This makes it less appropiate to understand benefits or risks related to a circular economy. LCA results are therefore needed to pursue the idea of a circular economy. This is commonly acknowledged in society as well as industry, and both policies and standards are to an increasing extent referring to LCA as the method to uncover the environmental performance of products and services. The calculation rules in the «Renewable Energy Directive» and the development of «Product Environmental Footprints» are two important examples.
The evolving history of LCA
As a methodology, LCA has a history back to the 1960-70’ies. The increased awareness of environmental problems in combination with the IT-development has enabled the increased use of LCA. The method is undoubtedly comprehensive and involves a lot of data, but the accumulated knowledge of the last decades LCAs have made it easier and cheaper to perform LCAs. Since the 90’ies, the scope of the LCA method has also been under consideration. Social LCA (SLCA) is under development as a complementary approach intended to measure social impacts. For a product or process to be not only green, but sustainable, a method that includes social issues is needed. SLCA is claimed to be a promising technique to improve a product’s socio-economic performance throughout its life cycle, although the selection and computation of indicators is still at an immature stage.
LCA’s role in SusValueWaste
In Norway, Østfoldforskning is considered the leading research centre in LCA and is a partner in the SusValueWaste project. In one of the projects open seminars, Andreas Brekke from Østfoldforskning gave an introduction to this important field which is highly relevant in the bio-economy. He started to work with LCA in 2000 after completing his degree in chemical engineering and used LCA as empirical material in his PhD in Economy. Throughout the years, he has worked with numerous projects to develop LCAs and the understanding of how different products affect the environment. In SusValueWaste, Brekke is part of the work package performing LCAs on selected value chains of organic rest-products.
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