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Life Cycle Assessment

What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

LCA is the acronym for Life Cycle Assessment , it is an instrument to analyze the environmental impact of a product across all the phases of its life cycle (e.g. raw materials extraction, production, transport, use, and end-of-life).

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Why using LCA?

LCA makes it possible to look closely at each aspect relative to each component of a product or service, fully investigating the complexity of its entire life cycle. This allows to identify the processes and phases that have the most environmental impact, and thus to get a clear idea of the priority areas to work on first. LCA can be used to improve an existing product or to guide the decision-making process in the creation of a new one.

What’s analyzed with LCA?

When you begin an LCA project, the first task is to identify all the processes involved for each component of a product and its packaging. Subsequently, for each process, data relative to the resources used are collected (e.g., energy, water, etc.), becoming the input, as are those relative to emissions in water, air and soil, becoming the output. Resources and emissions are used to calculate the impact (e.g., eutrophication, ozone layer deplation, acidification, toxicity, etc.).

Example of a LCA analysis

Let’s say we wanted to calculate the impact of a liter of milk in a glass bottle. Where should we start?

From the milking process? From the cow? Or even further upstream?

To produce our milk, we need to consider the life cycle of our cow, which also includes the food it eats. Even the animal's feed is thus included in the analysis, along with the transportation necessary to bring it to the farm. Once the cow has been milked, the milk will be collected, processed and bottled. The distribution of milk, like all other fresh food, requires that the cold chain is uninterrupted: refrigeration must be guaranteed during shipping and at the point of sale, which consumes resources. In the case of milk, the use phase isn’t considered because it's highly dependent on the individual consumer, but the end of life of the bottle is included. For other products, such as computers or airplanes, the use phase has a significant impact.

The assessment goes deeper into the single phases. To analyze the feed of our cow, the entire agricultural cycle has to be considered, starting from the preparation of the soil, the planting of seeds, tending to them, up to their growth and harvest. It then continues in the industrial phase, which ends with packaging and transport.

The starring cow of this example is also a life cycle within the life cycle. She’s a peculiar case, however, because she provides different products, such as milk, meat and leather. The methodological choice to make in this case is to decide how to allocate the impact of this cycle among the different co-products.

Life Cycle Assessment also considers the packaging. In this case, as an example, we’ll only consider the glass bottle, but it could also have a paper label glued to the bottle, which should be included. Moreover, the secondary packaging of the empty glass bottle and the secondary packaging that’s used to ship the bottles of milk to stores (for example, cardboard boxes) should also be included.

The entire life cycle of the fridge that holds our bottle of milk at the supermarket will also be examined. Over the years, the refrigerator will hold X bottles of milk, so the milk bottle must be assigned 1/X of the impact of the fridge.

Likewise, we have to consider the life cycle of all the means of transport included in our life cycle, such as the ship that brings the feed to the farm or the refrigerated truck that brings the milk bottles to the supermarket. Once again, an impact proportional to the percent for our liter of milk will be assigned.

Continuing along in this way, the pasteurization plant, warehouse and bottling plant will be considered, as will the manufacturing plant for the bottle and the other containers and packaging.

And so on, including the analysis of each process and phase, and their various implications.

LCA is considered the ecodesign tool par excellence.

  • Ciclo di vita del latte
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 1
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 2
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 3
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 4
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 5
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 6
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 7
  • Ciclo di vita del latte (LCA), schema step 8

How to perform an LCA study?

The four phases of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) are: Goal and scope definition, Inventory, Impact Assessment, Interpretation.

  1. Goal and scope definition: the aim of the study, the functional unit, the reference flow, the product system and the breadth and depth of the study are established;
  2. Life Cycle Inventory (LCI): this is the second phase of an LCA, in which the relevant inputs and outputs of the product system under study throughout the entire life cycle are, as far as possible, compiled and quantified;
  3. Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA): the third phase of an LCA is about understanding and evaluating the magnitude and significance of the potential environmental impacts of the product system under study;
  4. Interpretation: in the fourth phase of the LCA the results of the Inventory analysis are interpreted in the light of the Goal and scope definition in order to draw conclusions and recommendations.

How are LCA results used?

This methodology can be used for different purposes, both at the product and service level:

  • compare alternative solutions for a product (e.g. materials, processes, packaging etc.)
  • identify the major impacts and set priorities
  • Compare different solutions with the same function (e.g. use of personal car vs car sharing, rental car, public transport)
  • support the selection of suppliers or develop common improvement strategies with the actors of the supply chain
  • obtain certain ecolabels (e.g. EPD, Environmental Product Declaration)
  • support and assess circular economy projects
  • communicate the environmental performance avoiding greenwashing
  • assess best available techniques
  • measure ecoefficiency when combined with Life Cycle Costing and Social LCA
  • ottimizzare tecnologie e processi produttivi a livello di settore, ad esempio per supportare strategie di politica ambientale (es. rifiuti) o per rendere più efficienti sistemi di servizi (es. mobilità).

The true value of LCA is its utility for ecodesign, to support the development of new products that integrate environmental sustainability with all the other aspects that are generally considered, such as quality, price, duration, shape, etc. Used in an innovative way, this methodology makes it possible to identify ways to reduce impact and costs, to find more efficient and original combinations of materials, processes and uses, and to come up with new collaborations between company departments and along the supply chain.

UNEP Life Cycle Initiative (United Nations Environment Programme)

It promotes the use of LCA as a methodology able to create more robust circular economy strategies
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Horizon 2020 Project

2B was one of the partners of the Water2Return project for the treatment of wastewater and recovering of nutrients and the transformation of wastewater into added-value products for circular economy in the agricultural sector. 2B was work package leader for LCA, LCC and Social LCA.
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A bit of LCA history

LCA is a relatively recent methodology. The first, most famous life cycle assessment study, which most people consider to be the start of LCA, was the one carried out by Coca-Cola in 1971 to compare the different types of packaging of its soft drink. According to some experts, however, other studies had been conducted in Scandinavia even before that. A few years ago, here at 2B we were lucky enough to obtain a copy of the historical Coca-Cola study, which many people talk about yet no one seems to have ever seen. It appeared online, with just enough time to download it before it vanished, a true relic for those passionate about the industry.

Despite this initial attempt by the American multinational, LCA methodology was at first little more than an academic exercise. Only later did it become part of the corporate world, generally through R&D departments. With time, continuous methodological developments and a growing number of studies, the value of LCA began to be recognized internationally. The European Commission described it as “the best framework for assessing the potential environmental impacts of products.” Many companies have adopted it to better understand the impact of their products, the priority actions to take, and also to support environmental communications, with data on hand.

The strategic potential of LCA

The world's most innovative, enterprising companies don’t just use LCA to develop new products, services or processes; they apply it to new company strategies.

Toyota developed the Prius with the goal of minimizing its impact because an LCA made demonstrated that the use phase of an automobile had the most impact. Similarly, Levi Strauss focused his efforts on two high-impact phases of the life cycle: raw materials and use, developing concrete interventions and actions targeted at the cotton he sourced and the washing and drying carried out by end consumers.

Eco-innovation is evolving through LCA to be oriented around the development of new business models, up to its use to support medium and long-term company objectives. The maximum potential of this methodology still hasn't been reached by most companies and the opportunities for improvement and differentiation are concrete and worthy of careful consideration.

Having identified the major impacts and the stages to which they relate, it is possible to apply life cycle thinking to business strategy through the adoption of business models best suited to the critical stages. This article by PRé, inspired by a study by Chun and Lee published in the Journal of Sustainable Development, offers insights precisely through combining the life cycle stages with the greatest impacts and possible development models, such as the sharing economy, circular economy, sustainability along the supply chain, collaborative approach or ecodesign.

LCA is also very useful for companies that decide to establish clear objectives to reduce their environmental impactand deadlines to reach those goals, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use, increased use of renewable energy, zero-waste policies, or even reducing their social impact, such as minimum wages guaranteed in developing nations, valuing the work of women, and childhood aid.

With our partner, PRé Sustainability, we develop custom instruments that allow businesses, trade associations or groups of companies motivated by shared objectives, to have a simplified tool for environmental evaluations through the use of relevant indicators.

With PRé Sustainability and the SimaPro Partner Network, we constantly monitor international developments in terms of the most innovative methodology and applications.

In-house LCA? Or rely on a consultant?

Over the years, we’ve helped dozens of companies conduct LCAs with different goals, from the improvement of existing products to the development of new ones starting from the design phase, to in-house and external communications. We have experience in a wide range of industries, and we’ve worked with small businesses and multi-national corporations; we've helped create services and products that are simple or extremely complex, and even those made with materials that have never been used before.

Companies and organizations often ask us how to manage the use of the LCA methodology, more specifically if they should learn to use it in-house or to delegate the studies and receive the results in a turnkey form.

There is no one right answer, but we can offer some guidance.

When and why learn or internalize LCA?

Integrating LCA in any business is an investment, and as such it takes time, dedication, good reasoning skills and consistency. LCA isn’t for everyone: it requires particular attention be paid to detail while never losing sight of the whole, a good scientific background, organization and, to start with, a good teacher. Once you decide to make such valuable skills your own, in-house LCA is an opportunity for growth that will allow you to take full advantage of the benefits this methodology offers. By knowing a subject thoroughly, you can truly see and make use of its potential, and you can tell its story better, in the right way.

LCA empowerment

Our trainings enclose the experience gained in over two decades working with major companies and organizations in three continents, hundreds of studies performed and the passion for our work.
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When to delegate LCA and how to choose the right professional

It is better to delegate LCA studies when:

  • results are needed pretty quickly;
  • The study has been commissioned and you want to be able to answer a specific question or request without wasting time;
  • non si ha una persona da dedicare, tempo e risorse nel medio e lungo termine.

So, delegating isn't always the wrong choice. Actually, it can be the right choice in a specific moment or a specific circumstance.

What aspects should I consider if I'm not an expert and I want to conduct an environmental impact assessment for one of my products?

First of all, always ask any consultant that you interact with how many years of experience they have and how many LCAs they've completed.

If you work in an innovative industry and your products use new materials, it may be necessary to recreate the processes of their components, and thus a solid scientific understanding will be important, as will the ability the recreate the chemistry of the materials, indispensable for studying them.

Any LCA must, by definition, use lots of primary data coming from your product, your manufacturing plant and your specific context. If that data isn’t requested, it means that secondary data is being used, and thus a product similar to yours, but not yours, is being analyzed.

Don’t be afraid to ask for explanations, to try to dig deeper, to know the “why” behind choices, assumptions, and results, and even to double-check the calculations. You have the right to go through the analysis with a fine-tooth comb, to make sure it's the study you asked for. Even true professionals can make mistakes, but they also won’t be afraid of having their work examined.

Are you sure of not being sustainable?

Vademecum of self assessment for designer and business people in the furniture and interior décor sector, by 2B for Best Up – Salone del Mobile.
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How can we help you undertake a sustainability path?

If you wish to undertake a sustainability path and identify opportunities for responsible development, we can help you develop new visions, perspectives and a solid action programme.

We support companies along their route to sustainability from the initial assessment to the implementation of the action plan and the communication of results. We can support you throughout the whole path, help you to take off giving you new inspiration, or support you with the single phases of the program.

We help you make the right choice

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