Life Cycle thinking
When talking about a life cycle of a product or service, it means that all the preceding processes, from the extraction of materials, the production, its use and even the end of its use (end of life of the product used) is taken into consideration. During the life cycle, inputs are provided and outputs are released from the system in the form of emissions. Figure 1 (adapted from Baumann & Tillman, 2004) shows a schematic overview called a life cycle model.
This model shows the different types of processes that can be expected in a product life cycle. Besides the direct inputs and outputs which serve as an input for the next cycle, there are also secondary in and outputs into the system. Think of electricity production needed for the processing and manufacturing of a product or the collection of water needed for cooling.
Figure 1 The life cycle model, adapted from Baumann and Tillman, 2004. Depending on the scope (cradle to gate, cradle to grave and cradle to cradle) the scope ends at different points in the life cycle mode, indicated with the two blue boxes for the cradle to grave and the recycling arrow in the case of cradle to cradle
Within the life cycle model there are three common levels or scopes: they are cradle to (factory)gate, cradle to grave and cradle to cradle. In the first scope, all processes from the raw material acquisition until it leaves the producers systems view are included. The second scope encompasses the use phase and the waste management (hence the word grave) of the product or service. In the third and last scope the recycling or re-use is included in the system and thus called cradle to cradle.
When the environmental impact of a product or service needs to be investigated a Life Cycle Assessment can be carried out. This method uses life cycle thinking and identifies all emissions that are related to the inputs and outputs of the processes involved during the life cycle. Thereby not only focus is laid on the direct life cycle but also on the secondary in- and outputs, like energy use. Depending on the research question and scope of the study, the system can be assessed with one of these three scope levels.
Life Cycle Assessment
A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) assesses the environmental (and/or social) impact that can be associated with a product, a company or a service. Usually the question initiating an LCA can come from different perspectives:
The management of a company can ask this question to be able to make in- and external sustainable decisions. Someone in product development could ask this in order to be able to develop the most sustainable product. Sales & marketing can use the outcome of an LCA to back up sustainability claims (however one should be careful not to greenwash its claims). And the outcome of an LCA could also help to look back and select better suppliers in the supply chain.
The methodology of a Life Cycle Assessment is standardized and consists of four parts that each must be followed. These steps are generally explained in the ISO documents 14040/14044. The required parts are:
- Goal and scope definition
- LCI (Inventory analysis)
- LCIA (Impact assessment)
Figure 2: Schematic overview of the LCA methodology. Adapted from Baumann and Tillman , 2004.
Figure 2 shows these steps schematically. The first part, the goal and scope definition states the chosen boundaries of the assessment, for who the LCA is intended and a explanation of the methodological choices. In the second part, Life cycle inventory, the data related to all the identified processes are collected and organised, as well as the related emissions of those processes. In the Life cycle impact assessment the results are classified into impact categories, and depending if it is necessary, characterisation and weighting factors can be applied.
In the figure there can be noticed that the interpretation is placed on the side of the other parts. This means that the interpretation, or also the check phase, is of importance during all the parts of the LCA. If the interpretation shows that adjustments must be made it is possible to adjust all previous steps as well before continuing.
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