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Understanding LCA

Sustainable development requires a new production and consumption philosophy. To this end, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held by the UN in Johannesburg in August 2003, proposed a...


Sustainable development requires a new production and consumption philosophy. To this end, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held by the UN in Johannesburg in August 2003, proposed a ten-year work plan that aimed at changing non-sustainable consumption and production models. One of the approaches suggested was to take upstream rather than downstream actions in order to solve environmental issues, boosting an economy based on a new philosophy: lifecycle thinking.

Lifecycle thinking considers all of a product or service’s environmental, economic and social effects. It draws on a toolkit, lifecycle management (LCM), which includes product and service lifecycle assessment (LCA), eco-labelling, eco-design and others. Lifecycle assessment, or ecological balance sheet, is an environmental and natural resources impact assessment method for a product, service or activity, from natural resource extraction to recycling or waste disposal, to manufacturing, packaging, distribution, and the consumption or use of a product or service. Also called an “ecobalance,” this assessment is a detailed balance sheet of the materials and energy used throughout a product or service’s lifecycle and of the impacts they have. LCA is, above all, a decision support tool.

The four phases of LCA

Falling under the standards of the ISO 14040 series, LCA is a thorough approach with four distinct phases. The first, identifies the objectives and the field of study. An important step in this phase is establishing the functional unit on which the study is based and which makes comparing different products with a similar function possible. It’s precisely determined according to the objective of the study, its use and the product’s use. With the functional unit, both the product’s unit and the function unit can be taken into account. A functional unit can be, for example, the coffee consumption of 1000 people over a one-month period. This functional unit could lead to a comparison study of the use of porcelain mugs versus polystyrene cups versus cardboard cups in order to determine which has the least overall environmental impact.

Once the limits of the research system have been established, it’s possible to divide it into less complex sub-systems, making the mass and energy balances (the second phase of the study) simpler to complete. In sum, this first phase must answer questions including: Why conduct an LCA? To compare products? To improve an existing product, service or process? To implement a public policy? Who will use the results of the study?

Inventory analysis, the second phase, consists in quantifying all the input and output fluxes of a given system. These databases are available through private sources, governments or universities. It is important to mention that there is no Canadian inventory database that is reliable or exhaustive enough to conduct an LCA for different industrial sectors. Also, up until now, private corporations with internal databases have conducted most of the completed LCAs. It is therefore necessary to develop a Canadian inventory database in order to circumvent the biases that arise when using foreign databases.

This second phase of LCA answers questions including: How much energy is required to produce, distribute and dispose of the product? What substances are consumed throughout a product’s lifecycle? Which co-products, wastes and pollutants are released into the environment (water, air and soil)?

The third phase involves assessing the impacts of the different material and energy fluxes estimated in the previous phase. Qualitative and quantitative analyses of these impacts must be conducted. According to the ISO 14042 standard, ten impact categories are generally taken into account in an LCA: global warming (GWP, stratospheric ozone depletion [ODP], photo-oxidant agents [smog, POCP], acidification [AP], Eutrophication [EP], ecotoxicological impact, human toxicological impact, using abiotic resources, using biotic resources, and land use.

Impact assessment for given systems and sub-systems are usually conducted with European methods such as Eco-indicator 99 and EDIP or, more recently, with an American method, TRACI. This assessment will determine which steps and components generate the most impacts and require the greatest amounts of energy and resources. The impact assessment also characterizes the different components of a given system, standardizes the impacts into common units and weights, and aggregates the results in order to obtain one value per sub-system. Results are generally presented in a statistical chart so that the lifecycle phases of a product or service that generate the most impacts can quickly be identified and so that efforts to streamline these phases can then be undertaken. Note that, until recently, the value of LCA results in Canada were scientifically debatable, as no other Canadian impact assessment method was available until the CIRAIG developed the LUCAS method in 2005.

The fourth and last phase in LCA is the interpretation of the data collected during the first three phases. In addition to assessing the quality of the results, this step (ISO-14043) analyzes the opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts and ways to increase the economic performance of a product or service through more efficient energy use and reducing or substituting raw and secondary materials, This phase answers questions including: Can the amount of pollutant emissions released into the environment be reduced? Can the product be reused, recycled or transformed? Can the energy be recovered? Can the product be manufactured from less harmful raw and secondary materials? How can the local impacts of a product or service be reduced?

Sophie Lavalle is a professor of environmental law in the Faculty of Law at Laval University and a member of the Quebec Bar Association. Daniel Normandin is a biologist and holds master’s degrees in environmental biotechnology and business administration. Visit www.ciraig.org

CIRAIG

The lifecycle approach is revolutionizing industrial practices. The 2nd Canadian Forum on the Life Cycle Management of Products and Services, which was held last October 26 and 27 in Montreal, was the occasion for Canadian and international experts to come share their knowledge with nearly 200 representatives of the Canadian governments and industry.

Supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the lifecycle approach allows companies to improve their practices as well as design products and services having an overall lesser impact on the environment and resources while avoiding problem shifting from one stage of the life cycle to another.

“The lifecycle approach is emerging at a crucial time when economic actors are seeking effective solutions to achieve sustainable development goals and to respond to new government regulations,” comments Professor Rjean Samson, CIRAIG’s General Director, organizer of the Forum. “The theme of the second edition of the Forum ‘Life Cycle for Sustainable Development: From Concept to Application’ precisely illustrates Canada’s situation in regards to the production of products and services: how can governments and companies integrate, in concrete terms, sustainable development in society?”

Canada is expending considerable efforts to achieve the Kyoto Protocol goals. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is one solution which will allow industry to make its contribution. Reduction in distance for the transport of products, use of more energy-efficient production processes, closed-loop water use, the design of new reusable packaging (possibly even compostable), assessment of product reuse capacity… all these practices are included in the lifecycle approach which will lead companies to develop more sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Currently composed of eight Quebec universities, the CIRAIG (Interuniversity Reference Center for the Life Cycle Asses

sment, Interpretation and Management of Products and Processes) was initially created by the cole Polytechnique de Montral, the Universit de Montral and HEC Montral, to answer requests by industry and governments to develop university-level leading-edge expertise on sustainable development tools. The CIRAIG collaborates with many research centres throughout the world and takes an active part in the research and the development of tools for the industrial sector and government.

For information, contact Emmanuelle Ghin at 514-803-9209.


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