Buzzword: Life-Cycle Assessment

Consumer Reports News: May 16, 2008 12:15 PM

What it means. If you’re aware of the age-old plastic-versus-paper debate, then you’re at least indirectly familiar with the concept of life-cycle assessment, or LCA. An LCA is a technique used to analyze or compare products, processes, or services to identify ways to minimize human and environmental impacts. (The life-cycle graphic shown is from the Environment Protection Authority of Victoria, Australia.)

Often referred to as a cradle-to-grave approach, an LCA is typically carried out using software to analyze the cumulative environmental impacts from all stages of a product’s life cycle, including raw-material extraction, product transportation and use and, ultimately, its disposal, reuse, or recycling.

Why the buzz? Although the LCA technique dates back to the 1960s, when awareness of energy and natural-resources depletion was starting to grow, the concept is gaining new ground during these increasingly environmentally conscious times. But even so, don’t expect to see life-cycle assessments spelled out on too many products or services.

That’s because much of the work using LCA tools happens behind the scenes, often using confidential data sets and complex calculations to measure and compare things like greenhouse-gas emissions, natural-resource use, and solid- or hazardous-waste generation, Annual reports from companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble tout the use of LCAs to evaluate and reduce the impacts of the products they make.

Another increasingly common use of LCAs is to measure and certify improvements in the green-building industry. The National Association of Home Builders and the U.S. Green Building Council are beginning to accept the use of LCAs to help determine whether certain building materials qualify for their certification programs. The U.S. Green Building Council expects to begin offering life-cycle credits toward its LEED certification beginning this summer.

The government is also taking an LCA approach to research products, prioritize, and create better environmental policies. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses a “life-cycle perspective” to help identify products with minimal environmental impacts through its Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program.

While LCA tools can offer valuable information, it’s important to note that the results are only as good as the data and analytical models they use, and their results may not be relevant for every situation.

As for that plastic-versus-paper issue? The Sierra Club, a nonprofit environmental organization, points out that the life cycle of each has pros and cons depending on where and how they are made. The better option, says the group, is to use reusable bags instead.Kristi Wiedemann, Science and Policy Analyst, GreenerChoices.org


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