Outside the Bottle: Life Cycle Assessment
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It seems as if we don’t go a day without seeing another article on global warming and how climate change is approaching the point where it is irreversible. Significant media attention is given to industrial pollution and vehicle emissions about their negative environmental impacts.
Recently there has been an increase in awareness around the impact of consumer packaged goods (CPGs). Unfortunately, the press around the environmental impact of CPGs tends to focus on packaging. In addition, the common factor to quantify environmental impact in the media is carbon (CO2) footprint. However, focusing on packaging or CO2 footprint only tells part of the story.
The think outside the bottle concept is to encourage consciousness when consuming. Our impact on the environment that is more than what we see when we pick up a bottle off the shelf. It isn’t just about packaging or CO2 footprint. There is more to consider about a product’s impact and ultimately our impact.
Life Cycle Assessment
“Life Cycle Assessment…” is defined in a 2017 publication Environmental Management as “…a technique for assessing the environmental aspects associated with a product over its life cycle.” Essentially a life cycle assessment (LCA) considers the impact of a product or service from the procurement of raw materials to how the materials are disposed of. An LCA does not only consider the material inputs and outputs, yet also accounts for the energy impact associated with the product or service.
One of multiple areas where an LCA can be utilized is to determine environmental impact of a product or service. This post will focus on an overview of life cycle assessments in relation to their application to evaluate overall environmental impact. In addition to environmental impact, an LCA can be used to determine impacts in other areas like social impact and impact on human health. Heard of cradle-to-cradle certification? If you have, then you’re more familiar with life cycle assessments than you think.
Components of a Life Cycle Assessment
Components of a an LCA can vary industry-to-industry. The components are generally described as the following:
Each component has multiple inputs that relate to the impact of a product or service. Life cycle assessments performed for commercial purpose are completed by trained professionals at an independent laboratory. LCAs can take several months to complete due to the amount of information for the inputs that needs to be obtained. Because of the time constraint associated with a conventional LCA, a rapid LCA can be utilized for product development purposes. A rapid LCA is less detailed and less accurate, however gives companies insight to make design decisions quickly.
More than Carbon Footprint
An LCA utilized to assess impact related to the environment does not just focus on a single environmental factor, yet a set of them defined by the assessor. Commonly in media outlets and marketing campaigns we hear the term carbon footprint. Merriam-Webster defines carbon footprint as the amount of greenhouse gases, and specifically carbon dioxide, emitted by something (…) during a given period. In a life cycle assessment, carbon footprint (CO2) is only one impact category.
As impact categories are defined by the assessor, it is up to the assessor to capture the whole story of impact through the LCA. There are a number of environmental impact categories, a few which include:
Water Source Depletion
Fossil Resource Depletion
As these categories only relate to environmental impact, there are product impact categories to consider such as human toxicity. This is why highlighting only the carbon footprint of a product does not give the full product story and can be misleading. Even to assess a full LCA on product packaging and not the product itself gives little validation to the overall impact of the product. There is so much to discuss around product impact and the LCA methodology, however this is a start.
More to come on this topic!
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