The term “life cycle assessment” (LCA) refers to a way of measuring the environmental impact of the production of things and services. It allows us to assess how we get the raw materials to make things or provide services, how we make or provide them, how we use them, and how we recycle or dispose of them, including what and how much energy we use and what emissions we generate at each step of the process, or the “life cycle” of the thing or service. An important use is for assessing carbon emissions that contribute to global climate change.
The key elements to a LCA are to identify and quantify the energy and raw materials consumed, the emissions and wastes generated, and other environmental loadings; to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of these loads; and to assess the options available for reducing these environmental impacts. The typical life cycle consists of a series of stages running from extraction of raw materials, through design and formulation, processing, manufacturing, packaging, distribution (including transportation), use, re-use, recycling and, ultimately, waste disposal. It covers everything from the cradle to the grave.
The LCA is a tool that is designed to reduce environmental impacts and to save money for those who use it. For others, LCA is a way of thinking about the interrelationship between products, production and the environment, and is another way to achieve sustainable development. The interest in LCA derives from the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and Agenda 21 that was developed at that Summit.
Getting the data to undertake a LCA can be daunting and expensive for larger organizations. Public agencies are putting together data and assessments to assist individuals and organizations to undertake a LCA. For instance, in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) a carbon management tool has been developed to help businesses measure and reduce carbon emissions. The Waste Management Strategy for Northern Ireland is based on a life cycle assessment that considers how waste can be minimised and recovered at every stage in a production process from use of virgin materials, through product manufacture and supply, to consumption and eventual recovery or disposal.
Some further ideas to explore on Life Cycle Assessment:
Select a product that you, your class or group uses frequently and see if you can produce a life cycle assessment for it.
Identify what gaps in data exist to do such a LCA and how those gaps can be filled and by whom.
See if you can do a LCA for a service that you, your class or group depend on, e.g. transportation, janitorial.
“Life cycle assessment” Glossary, European Environment Agency. glossary.eea.europa.eu/terminology/concept_html?term=life%20cycle%20assessment
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – A guide to approaches, experiences and information sources Environmental issue report No 6 (EEA, 21 Apr 1998).
Environmental Protection Agency RoI, Carbon Management Tool.
Towards Resource Management: The Northern Ireland Waste Management Strategy 2006 – 2020, Vol. 2, Waste Stream Summaries. NI Department of the Environment. The document includes a Life Cycle Assessment for each main waste stream, e.g., municipal, commercial, agricultural, hazardous, as well as for the major wastes, e.g. tyres, packaging.