What You Should Know About Lifecycle Assessment

featured-brave-new-worldOK folks, dig your tailbone into your seat and maybe grab a cup of coffee before you delve into this month’s column. It’s going to be more technical than usual, but I’ll keep it as relevant and useful as possible. Last month, we spoke about transparency, and how that can have huge implications in a world where one voice can change the course of business for a multimillion dollar global organization. As a follow up, I want to discuss what a Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) entails, and how it can help a business.

The LCA is defined by the U.S. EPA as: “A technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service, by compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases; evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases; interpreting the results to help you make a more informed decision.”

What the LCA essentially does is assesses the environmental impact of a product from the point of sourcing raw materials, to transportation and packaging of a product, to the final disposal of that product. Sometimes this is referred to as “Cradle to Grave.”

Performing the actual LCA process is probably not necessarily an amateur undertaking. For instance, I tried to do a quick review of an office scanner, using various data points that I obtained from a publicly available database. What I got was: “Office scanner: ProductFlow kg 8.70e+00.” Um, yeah. Not the faintest idea. With a little further research, I discovered that there are a multitude of databases that allow you to provide information, such as the number of miles a TOTO toilet travels to its place of use, then includes details such as the grams of barium in the product. It produces a report on everything from the economic to environmental performance of that product over the course of its life. I encourage you to give it a spin yourself. Visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology and check out its BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) software.

Want more information? I’m sure you do — but before you tackle this concept, let me warn you. Many of the resources are actually pretty mind-numbing, unless you happen to be one of my product engineer readers, and then you will be all over this stuff like my 6 year old and her secret stash of candy corn (hey – it is­ October). Then again, I did find an interesting study that claims videoconferencing takes 6.7 percent of the energy/carbon of a face-to-face meeting. (This stuff can get really distracting for a greenie, trust me.) That being said, here are a few resources that I found really helpful:

Want an elementary overview of LCA? Here is one from Scholastic.

Looking for some of the LCA databases used in buildings? Try the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute.

A paid LCA professional service and software tool, PE International.

And, finally, the good old U.S. EPA has a ton of great resources.

What makes LCA especially beneficial is that there is generally an associated economic assessment that can be made about the product as well. This could prove to be highly useful for the end user, architect or builder. They could plug in this basic information about a product (such as this LCA report by Casio) and see how it fits into their sustainability goals. This is the type of data we can supply to become more transparent and meet our client needs.