The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool is based on a well-defined methodology, standard ISO 14040-14044, where it is possible to quantify the environmental impacts associated with a system throughout its entire life cycle, which can be a product or process. The environmental impacts can be varied, up to 16 different environmental impact categories, which can be grouped into 3 macro impacts: on human health, resource extraction, and impact on the environment. Depending on the objective of the study, the LCA tool allows analyzing the complete life cycle of a given product or system and, in this way, identifying the environmental impacts associated with each stage of the life cycle of the same, or making a comparison of environmental impacts between two products with similar functions.
This typology of tools that allow the quantification of environmental impacts, with a well-defined methodological basis and calculation parameters validated by the scientific community, are fundamental for a real improvement of products and systems in terms of sustainability. As sustainability is a topic of interest to more and more consumers, it is imperative that the solutions presented to them are effectively and factually more sustainable than the current ones and not justified based on marketing campaigns and “common sense”.
Given the particularity of each product/system, an LCA study is always very specific to the concrete case under analysis, making it sometimes difficult to compare it with other studies. However, the use of a standard (ISO 14040-14044) allows standardization of the practices and structure of the study, with the mandatory definition of 4 concrete steps:
In order to promote greater comparability of studies, specific rules were created for particular groups of products (PCR’s- Product Category Rules) that guarantee that products with similar functions can be evaluated in the same way, allowing a more “fair” comparison between products.
In order to carry out an LCA study, a significant amount of data referring to the system’s life cycle is necessary, where the quality of the data is directly proportional to the quality of the final study. Normally in this type of study, real data are considered, referring to raw materials, industrial processes, transport routes, waste generated, among others, which can be complemented with secondary data from commercial databases that compile general data collected by country or region.
Considering the potential of quantifying environmental impacts, the LCA tool can be used in a decision support aspect, both in terms of product development, in terms of ecodesign, and in terms of product or process optimization. Based on the LCA methodology, there are tools that allow quantifying the economic impacts, Life Cycle Costing – LCC, or social, Social Life Cycle Assessment – s-LCA. These additional aspects make the analysis more complete insofar as it becomes possible to evaluate changes in systems from an environmental, economic, or social point of view, and it may then be possible to analyze the trade-off between the aspects evaluated.
The communication aspect is a sensitive topic when it comes to aspects related to sustainability. The LCA tool is adaptable to the target audience defined in the study, and any external communication of the results needs an opinion from an external evaluator in order to guarantee the suitability of the study (according to ISO 14044).
Author: Tomás de Vasconcelos – Circular Economy and Environment Project Manager at PIEP
Article originally published in InterPLAST Magazine.
Know more about the Circular Economy and Environment area of PIEP.