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Life Cycle Assessment Concepts Implementation And Problems An Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sciences
Wordcount: 4531 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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With the increase in industrialization and its impact on the Earth, there is an increasing concern for the future of human kind. Words like “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are being used more frequently. Sustainability is a multidimensional concept and focuses on the triple bottom line concept i.e. ecological, social and economic objectives. The aim was to achieve sustainable development through the integration of the environmental dimension into all policy areas and the shared responsibility among all the polluters, public and private.

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To achieve sustainable development goals must be assessed. Since sustainability is a broad concept including ecological, social and economic goals and efficient and reliable tool is required. Ness et al. (2007) consider that the purpose of a sustainability assessment is to “provide decision-makers with an evaluation of global to local integrated nature-society systems in short and long term perspectives in order to assist them to determine which actions should or should not be taken in an attempt to make society more sustainable”.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a product related tool. It is more specific than other tools as it focuses on the flows related with production and consumption of goods and services. The goal is to evaluate the consumption of natural resources and emission of environmental loads along the production or consumption chains or throughout the life cycle of a product or service. LCA is the most developed product related tool.

According to Vigon et al. (1993), one of the first LCA studies was conducted by Harold Smith, project general manager for the Douglas Point Nuclear Generating Station, Canada. A later study, carried out at Coca-Cola by Harry E. And Teastley Jr., involving multiple criteria on the use of plastic vs. glass bottles for packing took into account the entire life cycle of the product. The study revealed that the plastic bottles were less polluting than the glass bottles. These partial results raised discussions on the validity of comparisons and led the scientific community to think of a standardisation process. Nowadays LCA is standardized through the ISO 14040 series.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a technique that is used to assess every impact associated with the stages of a process from cradle-to-grave. It is a holistic approach to evaluating environmental effects of a product, process or activity by looking at the entire life cycle of the product, process or activity from the extraction of raw materials through to consumer use. It maps the environmental effects throughout the entire life cycle.

Figure 1

LCA is a systematic set of procedures for examining and compiling the inputs and outputs of materials and energy and the associated environmental impacts directly attributable to the functioning of a product or service throughout its life cycle.

It can help in avoiding a narrow outlook on environmental, social and economic concerns (the triple bottom line). This can be achieved by following the ISO 14040 standards for LCA and doing the following:

Compilation of an inventory of inputs of energy and materials and environmental outputs

Identifying and determining the potential impacts related to the identified inputs and outputs

Interpreting the results in relation to the objectives of the study.

The framework for LCA is provided by the ISO 14040 series:

ISO 14040:1997 on principles and framework of LCA,

ISO 14041:1999 on the definition of goal and scope and inventory analysis,

ISO 14042:2000 on life cycle impact assessment, and

ISO 14043:2000 on life cycle interpretation.

Before the LCA came the global modelling studies and the energy audits of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were the precursors of the LCA and attempted to assess the cost of resources and environmental implications of different patterns of human behaviour.

The extension to these was the LCA and it became vital to support the development of eco-labelling schemes currently in practice in many countries around the globe. Before eco-labels can be granted, the awarding authority needs to be able to evaluate the manufacturing process, the consumption of energy and the waste generated throughout the life cycle of the product or service and this is where the LCA came into picture.

A Life Cycle Assessment practitioner tabulates the environmental exchanges (natural resources consumed and waste generated) at every stage in a product or service life cycle. The life cycle with its associated material and energy flows is called the “product system.” A LCA can be conducted to generate environmental information on the life cycle of the product and the information can be used to make decisions about changes that may be implemented in the product system to reduce the environmental impacts.

To accurately assess the burdens placed on the environment by the manufacture of a product or service a procedure must be followed or a process must be used. There are two main stages in the process; the first step is data collection and the second step is the interpretation of the data.

LCA is a powerful tool which can help regulators in formulating environmental policy and legislation, assist manufacturers in analyzing their processes and improving their products and aid the consumers in making informed decisions. Like most tools it must be properly used and not misused to provide publicity to a product or service. LCA has a wide range of applications. Some of the related applications which emerged during the evolution of LCA are:

Internal industrial use in product development and improvement

Internal strategic planning and policy decision support in industry,

External industrial use for marketing purposes, and

Governmental policy making in the areas of ecolabelling, green procurement and waste management opportunities.

Scope of LCA

Figure 2

The scope of LCA is the entire life cycle. It begins with the procurement of raw materials and ends with the disposal of the used product.

A LCA may be conducted by a firm to identify where improvements can be made, in environmental terms or it can be intended to provide environmental data for the public or to meet government regulations. A recent phenomenon is the use of LCA to market and advertise products as being environmentally friendly or environmentally superior to other products.

The goal in conducting a LCA study is to compare the full range of triple bottom line damage attributable to products and services and to provide information to enable decisions to be made about choosing the least burdensome one. It provides a method to account for the cascading effects of technologies used for producing goods and services. It accurately measures the impact of technology used to deliver product and services.

No matter how environmentally friendly, all products have some impact on the environment. The aim of LCA is to identify which products, processes or services are more harmful (generate more pollution or waste than others and/or utilize more resources). Even for products with a low environmental impact, LCA helps to identify the stages in the manufacturing process or in use which can cause pollution and those which require high material or energy input.

Examining the production process in such fine detail can also aid companies in identifying areas where scarce resources are being used and help them to substitute more sustainable products in their place. It may also lead to increased efficiency and lower cost of production and remove bottlenecks in the manufacturing process.

Phases in the LCA

The four distinct phases of a LCA, according to the ISO 14040 and 14044 standards, are goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, impact assessment and interpretation as shown in figure 3.

Figure 3

ISO framework for LCA

Goal and scope definition

Since LCA is a time consuming and expensive process, the objectives and scope of the LCA need to defined at the outset in order to make efficient use of time and resources. The following six decisions need to be made at the beginning of the LCA process:

1. Define the goal of the project

2. Determine the type of information needed by the decision makers

3. Determine the level of specificity

4. Determine how the data should be organized and the results displayed

5. Define the scope of the project

6. Determine the ground rules for conducting the study

In this phase the LCA practitioner decides and specifies the goal and scope of the study in relation to the particular application. The objective of the study is described in terms of a functional unit. The goal and scope address the overall approach to establish the system boundaries. The system boundaries in turn determine which unit processes are included in the LCA. The goal and scope definition phase also specifies the method used for assessing the potential environmental impacts.

Inventory Analysis

In the second phase, data is collected and the product is modelled. A description and verification of data is also included. All data related to the environmental and technical quantities for all relevant unit processes within the system boundaries are encompassed in this stage.

To aid the process of LCA, inventories and modelling are carried out using a dedicated software package, such as SimaPro, GaBi or TEAM.

TEAM (Tools for Environmental Analysis and Management) is Ecobilian’s Life Cycle Assessment software. TEAM allows the user to build and use a large database and to model any system representing the operations associated with products, processes and activities.

TEAM enables to describe any industrial system and to calculate the associated life cycle inventories and potential environmental impacts according to the ISO 14040 series of standards.

SimaPro, the most widely used LCA software, from PRe consultants. It offers parameterized modelling and comes with a large database included.

GaBi from PE International offers Life Cycle Assessment according to ISO 14040/ 14044, design for environment & ecodesign, environmental product declarations, product carbon footprint, resource & energy efficiency and water footprint calculations.

To help LCA practitioners understand the environmental impact of material flows while producing a material, component or assembly the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and partners created the United States Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) Database.

The LCA software mentioned above and other software analyze every stage of the product’s life cycle based on the data input by the LCA practitioner. Thus a LCA is only as valid as its data. This makes it necessary for the LCA practitioner to have an extensive knowledge and access to the details of the product. The software can also be used to model the underlying costs and social impacts. It can also be designed to assess the life cycle holistically or based on a specific aspect such as waste minimization.

The data must be related to the scope and goals defined in the first phase. Data can be organized in tabular format and some inferences can be drawn. The outcome of the inventory analysis phase is an LCI (Life Cycle Inventory). LCI provides information about all inputs and outputs in terms of an elementary flow to and from the environment from all unit processes involved in the study.

Impact assessment

In the third phase, the contribution to impact categories such as global warming, acidification, etc. is evaluated. In this the first step is characterization. Characterization involves calculating the impact potentials based on the LCI Results. Following this, the results are normalized and weighted (these are voluntary according to ISO standards). Normalizing involves giving all impacts the same units so that a basis for comparison can be established. Weighting implies attaching a weight factor to each impact category based on the relative importance.


The last phase of the LCA is the interpretation phase. It includes an analysis of the sensitivity of the data elements, the uncertainty and the major contributions. It is the concluding stage where the goals of the study can be met. It determines the confidence level of the final result and involves communicating them in a fair, accurate and complete manner. It starts with the understanding of the accuracy of the results and ensuring that they meet the goals defined in the first phase. This is done by identifying the data elements that contribute significantly to each impact category, determining the sensitivity and assessing their consistency and completeness. Conclusions and recommendations are made based on the interpretations and an understanding of the methodology of the LCA and the derivation of results.


There are many different variations of the Life Cycle Assessment:







Economic input-output life cycle assessment

Ecologically-based LCA

The various analytical tools to conduct life cycle analysis are:

Material Input per Unit of Service (MIPS)

Environmental Risk Analysis (ERA)

Material Flow Accounting (MFA)

Cumulative Energy Requirements Analysis (CERA)

Environmental Input-Output Analysis (env, IOA)

Life Cycle Costing (LCC)

Total cost accounting (TCA)

Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA)

Integrating Economic Analysis into LCA

The differences between LCA and LCC (Life Cycle Costing) are:

Figure 4

The separation of life cycle environmental assessment from economic analysis has several consequences:

It limits the influence and relevance of LCA in decision making.

Not integrating LCA and LCC leads to missed opportunities in alternate design decisions even when a LCC has been conducted simultaneously with an LCA as tradeoffs and relationships can’t be examined.

The LCA perspective and its results can have important economic relevance for companies, which may be missed when cost analyses neglect LCA’s scope and findings.

PTLaser and TCAce are two tools available to bridge the gap between LCA and LCC.

Figure 5

Schematic of TCAce information flows

These tools are helping companies to better evaluate their decisions.

Examples of LCA

Unilever Bros. Ltd.

Unilever is a multinational organisation having more than 275,000 employees with factories in 90 countries and sales in 150 countries.

Unilever’s environment strategy is Eco-efficiency in the supply chain, Eco-innovation in products and services, Sustainable Development Initiatives and Communication. Life Cycle Assessment helps to support this strategy.

Unilever has focused on environmental improvements of its own processes. It started applying LCA to its product systems in the late 1980s to identify areas of significant environmental impact, quantify Unilever’s contribution to the total impact and broaden the focus of environmental improvements.

Some of the product systems studied using LCA are:

Frozen vegetables

Ice Cream


Tomato-based sauce

Margarine and spreads

Laundry products

Household cleaners

Shower gels


Figure 6

The outcome of the LCA was that Unilever realised that to achieve significant improvements and benefits to the environment they needed a new approach. They engaged in partnerships with the supply chain and started programmes to educate consumer.

The LCA tool used by Unilever is shown in the figure:

Figure 7

Unilever is committed to 3 sustainable development themes:

• Sustainable Fisheries

• Sustainable Agriculture

• Clean Water Stewardship

To conduct the Overall Business Impact Assessment (OBIA), they performed a LCA of Unilever’s Global Business.

The role of LCA in sustainable agriculture was that LCA methodology was applied to each sustainable agriculture pilot crop. This provided an understanding of environmental impacts across agricultural supply chains, placed the agricultural stage in context with the rest of supply chain and aided in the development of sustainability indicators.

LCA in the clean water stewardship program was done by undertaking Water imprint based on OBIA approach and regional assessment of water supplies. It was based on the Life Cycle approach across the supply chain.

The role of communication in LCA can be divided into two segments:

Internal Communications

• Raising Awareness

• Innovation support

External Communiations

• Trade

• Regulators

• European Commission

• Industry

• Corporate Environment Report

• Unilever Internet Site

• Conferences, Presentations

• Brochures, publications

The outcomes of LCA for:

Individual Products

Identified significant environmental aspects across the life cycle of products

Placed Unilever contribution in context

Aided in Internal communication and awareness raising

Provided support for new product launch (PR)

Increasing consideration of environmental aspects in product development/innovation (ecodesign)

Development of tools to extend use of LCA to a wider audience

Strategic Level

Determined extent of Unilever’s global environmental impact

Contributed to the initiation of the Sustainable Development projects

Life cycle approach is integral to certain aspects of the Sustainable Development projects

Thus we can conclude that LCA as a tool and concept is a key, integral component of Unilever’s environmental strategy.

Procter & Gamble

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) database for laundry detergents of the Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) was constructed using SimaPro software. The input data needed to conduct a product LCI came from several different, supporting databases to cover supplier (extraction and manufacturing of raw materials), manufacturing of the detergent product, transportation, packaging, and use and disposal stages. Manufacturing, packaging and transportation stages are representative of European conditions while the use and disposal stages are country specific and represent how consumers are using a specific product and how wastes are disposed of in their respective countries. The database was constructed to allow Procter & Gamble managers to analyse detergent products from a system-wide, functional unit point of view in a consistent, transparent and reproducible manner.

The figure shows the life cycle as organized in the SimaPro software. A functional unit of 1000 wash cycles was assumed.

The analysis showed that more than 80% of the energy consumption occurs during the consumer use stage (mainly for heating of the water). Air and solid waste follow the same pattern, most of these being associated with the energy generation for the use stage. More than 98% of the biological oxygen demand, however, is associated with the disposal stage even after accounting for removal during treatment

Figure 8

The SimaPro database was customized specifically to conduct life-cycle inventories and impact assessments of P&G laundry detergents. The construction of the database allows a rapid, consistent and transparent execution of an LCI for P&G laundry detergents. It enables the ranking of the life-cycle phases in terms of their contributions to a certain emission or impact category. The analysis presented here clearly demonstrates the qualitative conclusion that, from an LCA point-of-view, the product use stage is the most important one; most of the emissions and therefore most of the environmental impact scores are driven by how the consumer uses the detergent. Most of these emissions are generated during the production of energy to heat the water. Quantitatively, the impact of the consumer use stage is very sensitive to variability in consumer habits as well as the characteristics of the local electricity grid.

The Dow Chemical Company

By 2015 Dow aims to double the percentage of sales to 10% of products which are advantaged by sustainable chemistry.

Dow has been in LCA since the late 1980’s. It was a key player in defining the pragmatic scientific basis of LCA. Dow continues to chair the Life Cycle Task Force, which oversees updates to PlasticsEurope eco-profiles and methodology. It has set up an LCA group to oversee LCA projects.

Major steps for ISO-compliant LCA at Dow:

• Business need for LCA identified in combination with the LCA group

• LCA Expert and Business Focal Point identified

• Goal & Scope Defined

• Life Cycle Inventory Collected

• Life Cycle Impact Assessment Performed

• Life Cycle Interpretation Conducted

• Report written and Critically Reviewed

• Third-Party (External) Report developed

Figure 9

Different LCA projects conducted by Dow are:

Natural Oil Polyols

Building Insulation Products

Sugarcane-based Polyethylene

These projects led to reduction in green house gas emissions, biodegradable plastics and use of renewable sources of raw material. The findings were used to support the ICCA study.


As part of their 2015 Sustainability goals, DuPont is committed to reducing the environmental impact of their products and processes along their value chains.

DuPont actually performed two separate LCAs — one for the manufacture and imaging of Flexographic & Gravure image carriers and one for Flexographic & Gravure printing. Both LCA studies took into account all the inputs and outputs associated with the chemistries, substrates, inks, transportation, packaging and other materials needed during packaging production that comprise 2% or more of the total needed for the final product. It also considered and credited any environmental benefits for all recycled, reused or incinerated materials. It did not include laminating or other finishing steps after the substrate is printed.

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The measurements and data were collected from Tradeshops and Printers in the U.S. and Western Europe, the Cyrel manufacturing site in Parlin, New Jersey; and the DuPont Cyrel Customer Technology Centre in Wilmington, Delaware. Data was provided by customers using a series of questionnaires. In addition, several pieces of equipment were metered during actual production to determine energy consumption. Other data, like solvent recycling was the result of modelling customer data.

Figure 10

High level results indicate that Flexographic printing offers approximately 50% savings in non-renewable energy consumption and greenhouse gases when compared to Gravure; and that solvent-free DuPont Cyrel FAST plate processing offers approximately 30% savings in greenhouse gases and 24% savings in non-renewable energy consumption when compared to solvent systems.

Additional insights suggest that – where possible – plate gauge should also be considered. When lighter gauge plates are specified, impacts are reduced across the entire supply chain and sustainability is enhanced.

To conduct the LCA an objective and recognized industry consulting group, Five Winds International LLC, was engaged to lead the critical peer review and approve the findings.

The Life Cycle Assessments have undergone a critical peer review and have been given approval. Final edits and panel signatures were completed in September, 2008. The Critical peer review assured that ISO standards 14040 and 14044 were followed and that processes were consistent with those standards; that data collection methods were scientifically and technically valid; that data was appropriate and reasonable for the goal of the study; that interpretations reflected the limitations and goals of the study; and that the report was transparent and consistent.

The peers came from industry associations (the FTA in the US), academia (Michigan State School of Packaging), the industry (Colour Resolutions International) and Sustainability consulting (Five Winds International).

Data was rigorously and scrupulously gathered over a 12 month period and repeated as needed. Customers and non-customer contacts in the industry provided access to their sites for data collection or in some cases provided the data directly. Data was collected in the US and Europe.

Consumer Packaged Goods Companies (CPGs) and retailers have begun to require that their suppliers provide products that have been made using environmentally sustainable processes. Some, like Wal-Mart, are requiring data supporting sustainability claims, and some like Unilever are beginning to specify the raw materials and production processes for their products.

If retailers & CPG’s specify Flexographic printing, lighter gauge plates and Cyrel FAST plate making when possible, they can reduce upstream energy consumption and greenhouse gases, improve upstream working conditions, and drive sustainable solutions and innovation globally.

Converters/printers can use this information to determine when to specifying lighter gauge plates and Cyrel FAST. By doing this, they will help drive efficiencies upstream that can lead to higher throughput, reduced non-renewable energy consumption and greenhouse gases, reduced waste, faster turnaround, and best-in-class graphics.

When Converters combine these gains with other sustainability initiatives, they can deliver important improvements to CPG’s and Retailers who are becoming more interested in upstream impacts and are trying to reduce their overall packaging footprint.

Tradeshops need to deliver sustainability gains to their customers while providing quality plates. They can use this information to make choices about how to produce plates. By adopting the most current systems, and encouraging the practice of reducing plate gauge, Tradeshops can eliminate materials and steps, reduce energy and emissions and pass these gains on to their customers. The trade shop’s triple bottom line is further enhanced by the increased throughput, faster turnaround, reduced waste and high performance.




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