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Key Benefits And Limitations Of LCA Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 4872 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Major benefits can arise from LCA. Through the ability to analyses exchanges that take place in the environment, it enables decision-makers to select the product or process that result in the least impact to the environment. LCA data identifies the transfer of environmental impacts from one media to another and/or from one life cycle stage to another (EPA 2001). Quantification of emissions, detection of variation between the various life cycle phases, the ability to estimate environmental burden of materials, the ability to compare and contrast competing products and the potential to structure and improve the flow of data between stakeholders are just some of the obvious benefits that can be gained through adoption of LCA. Papers by Deloitte “Enhancing the value of life cycle assessment” and “Lifecycle assessment: where is it on your sustainability agenda?” provide an insight into several benefits from utilizing LCA, including (Deloitte, 2009):

Innovation: Through revealing the source and magnitude of environmental impacts, product level LCA data can inform the innovation agenda.

Cost savings: Clarity in relation to cost drivers can lead to increased efficiency via material and energy requirements minimizing the negative environmental impacts. Furthermore, certain investments in R&D and projects related to renewable energy may be eligible for tax credits or other incentives.

Internal alignment: LCA provides a common ground for internal goal-setting and communication. Different departments within an organization can unite on enterprise-wide priorities.

Regulatory preparedness: LCA can help quantify the projected product cost implications of future carbon legislation and flag those areas that warrant immediate action. LCA can also enhance general transparency to deflect scrutiny from regulators and other stakeholders.

Corporate reputation: LCA can demonstrate a company’s deeper commitment to improved environmental impact. Improved sustainability claims can strengthen stakeholder relations.

Risk reduction: LCA helps companies develop their position around environmental issues to which their operations contribute. Increases awareness of potential liabilities the company should be aware of.

On top of these benefits examples of how customized LCA studies can support significant sustainability objectives include (Deloitte, 2012):

Enhance brand value for competitive differentiation: Compares the environmental impact of an organization’s product to alternatives to determine which benefits are distinguishable.

Improve design decisions: Evaluates resource and materials use to inform product and process design decisions that increase environmental efficiencies.

Make better procurement decisions: Engages multiple stakeholders and suppliers to allow organizations to make procurement decisions that significantly boost their sustainability efforts.

Meet communications needs: Provides a platform for authentically communicating positive environmental attributes about products to buyers and consumers.

Achieve compliance: Addresses regulatory mandates at local, national and international levels.

Create better policies: Evaluates internal and external policies of the organization to determine realistic objectives.

While all of the above benefits help paint a positive picture of LCA, one also has to consider the various disadvantages or limitations of such systems. As with all new and evolving systems there will always be significant teething problems during development. The more noteworthy of these include the fact LCAs utilizing the same and different methodologies can have vastly different results with assumptions, which can be subjective, being a requisite even for simple comparisons to be carried out. The validity of data is always a concern and whether the most up to date data has been used. Performing LCA is resource consuming and gathering data can be problematic. As a result, it is essential to weigh the resources needed against the projected benefits to measure feasibility. There is still no widely accepted standardised format for LCA, with most of the already existing ones such as ISO 14040 having several imperfections. Finally results of LCAs focused on national and regional level may not be suitable for local applications. These limitations do take some of the shine away from LCA and indicate that in essence at present LCA is fundamentally flawed given it can be near impossible in many cases to know the validity and relevance of conclusions drawn by the practitioner. While this may be true what has to be consider is that LCA is the best tool we have at present to tackle this significant area of concern. In reality the benefits of LCA far outreach its flaws and as transparency of methods and data becomes the norm its integrity will increase. What is for certain is LCA is set to become a fundamental element of product and service design.

Applications and potential of LCA

Applications of LCA

The application of LCA has been well documented and includes supporting initiatives to assessing environmental impacts that need addressing. Studies (Frankl and Rubik, 1999; Frankl et al., 2000) have highlighted key areas of application including:

Bottleneck identification

Information and education to consumers and stakeholders

Compare existing products with planned alternatives

Compare existing company products with products of competitors

Procurement specifications, supplier screening, product co-makership

Internal information and training

Anticipate and negotiate legislation

Marketing, advertising policies & joining eco-labelling criteria

Environmental cost allocation

Assess the gap from eco-label criteria

Radical changes in product life cycle

What can be taken from these findings is that there are three principle areas of application are; (1) comparison on an environmental basis which includes comparison of materials, methods and conformity. (2) In manufacturing LCA can be used to find the most ecological method through optimal material and processes selection. (3) In commercial development LCA can be used for marketing purposes and as a public informational aid (in example EPDs).

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In reality there are many different views among the scientific populace as to use and best practice for LCA. What is of interest is that one article by Grantadesigns in 2011 called “Granta’s new Guide: Five Steps to Eco Design” proposed that up to 80% of the environmental footprint of a product is determined during the design phase. From this we must assume that the best application for LCA would be in the design phase via evaluation of design alternative.

Potential of LCA

LCA is a methodology for quantifying and assessing the potential impacts of goods and services from an environmental perspective. From this viewpoint it can be taken that LCA can be applied to any kind of product or decision where environmental impacts are of concern. This in turn implies LCA can be applied by all the different stakeholders who are invested in a product or service including governmental, non-governmental and industries. While this dissertation cannot elaborate on all the opportunities open to LCA, focus will be placed on the following areas which are of particular interest to this study:

The potential of LCA at multinational corporation level

The potential of LCA for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs)

The potential of LCA at governmental level

The potential of LCA for multinational enterprises

Multinational companies face important strategic decisions that help establish the direction of their environmental performance. The decision whether to adopt a global standard or not is one such decision. While specific characteristics of multinationals make the application of LCA easier including; dedicated resources made available, separate departments responsible for implementation and co-ordination, development of internal databases and operating methodologies, and the ability to influence stakeholders, among others; there are equally other factors which present significant challenges including; diverse cultural approaches and consensus on methodologies including weighting across impact categories (Schmidt and Sullivan, 2002; Reap et al., 2008), and how to integrate LCA across the whole organisation as LCA in general tend to be reserved to environmental departments. The value which can be extracted by large corporations who adopt LCA tends to be in terms of material choice, technology choice, infrastructure and location choice, and product and process improvement.

The potential of LCA for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs)

While the need for environmental practices have been widely accepted in SMEs, as can be seen through the widespread adoption of ISO 14001, the adoption of LCA has being met with less enthusiasm. This is largely to do with the fact most SMEs need to focus their available resources on establishing their position in the market and can’t afford to extend resources to non essential activities. However, many small and medium enterprises are now seen the economic benefits that can be reaped from LCA implementation via simplified low cost approaches. Significant advantages can be gained in the R&D stage of products via material swap outs, process improvements or benchmarking (Hunkeler, 2003). One could even go as far as to say that LCA can be useful to improve credit terms as it improves resource allocation and minimises the risk of resources being spent inappropriately. The tangible benefits with regard to environmental business policy include (Hunkeler et al., 2004): reduced operating cost, improved resource efficiency, improved relations with authorities, improve external image, improved credit terms and reduced overheads. It is also worth noting that the addition of LCA will add value for firms in their IPO (initial public offering) as it will be recognised that the company will be more likely to be sustainable with future environmental requirements.

The potential of LCA at governmental level

The pattern to which goods and services are produced and consumed is established and controlled via government regulated frameworks and conditions. LCA falls within the reams of sustainable development and is of key importance in addressing waste and emissions attributes of products and services. Government activities are ongoing in regards to LCA with supporting strategies becoming widespread. This has led to the development of several nationally managed databases along with new methodologies and tools. Government bodies, including the departments of environment, energy and defence etc., are now active in supporting LCA development via conducting case studies and making data available. Websites have been developed and product orientated environmental policy is evolving, none more so than in the European Union (EU). In its Communication on Integrated Product Policy (COM (2003)302), the European Commission concluded that Life Cycle Assessments provide the best framework for assessing the potential environmental impacts of products currently available. There is an understanding within the EU for the need of life cycle thinking in stakeholder consultations and in policy implementation. There is an acknowledgment that information from LCA can support public policy making in eco-design criteria setting, such as contributing to performance targets within the Environmental Technology Action Plan (ETAP) and for energy-using products within the EuP Directive, in green public procurement (GPP), and in environmental product declarations (EPDs) (European commission, 2003). However, consideration has to be giving to the fact that LCA is only a decision supporting tool, and not a decision making tool. While advances aid its progression it is still limited with regards economic and social impacts, along with local environmental issues. As a result it can only be utilised in support of other tools to aid detection of potential improvement areas.

Policies, Laws, Standards and Incentives

Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is not a new phenomenon with scientists and manufacturers increasingly using it to expose opportunities to reduce environmental impacts of products and services, from cradle to grave. This has led to the rise of policies, legislation, standards and incentives in the race to control and maximise the potential of this rapidly expanding sector.


LCAs offer the opportunity to shift the traditional policy basis away from waste and resource amounts to one where the potential environmental impacts they cause is the focus and in so far as is feasible the related consequences to humans and the ecosystems is catered for.


While traditionally focus has been on reducing impacts of production processes, the responsibility is now being extended to manufacturers to reduce the impacts of products as well. This extension of manufacturer’s responsibility to cover the entire lifecycle of a product is known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The EC Sixth Environmental Action Programme Environment 2010 emphasises the importance of product policy which is also reflected in the Integrated Product Policy.


The International Organization for Standardization introduced the ISO 9000 series quality management standards in 1987. These were later followed in 1992 by various environmental standards known as the ISO 14000 series. These voluntary standards require verification by an external “certification body” to obtain the ISO certificate. In the ISO 14000 series there is a family of standards to choose from, so when you want to get environmentally certified you need to consider which best matches your requirements. The point of note in relation to the ISO 14000 series is that it is generic, meaning any business, regardless of size or sector can apply.

The following provides a brisk overview from a European perspective of the main policies, laws and standards where the life-cycle approach is emphasised as an important element.

Table : Overview of relevant policy, law and standards (Developed with data from European commission and Irish department of environment)





Subject matter


Framing policy


Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan, (SCP)

This communication sets out the measures to deliver more sustainable consumption and production, while improving the competitiveness of the European economy. It builds on several EU policies including the renewed Sustainable Development Strategy. The Community Lisbon Programme for 2008-2010 includes the promotion of an industrial policy geared towards more sustainable consumption and production as one of its major orientations (European commission, 2008).

Framing policy


EU’s thematic strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources

The objective is to reduce environmental impacts linked to resource use in a growing economy enabling sustainable development (European commission, 2005a). A review carried out by the “Bio Intelligence Service” in 2010 indicates ‘the integration of key concepts conveyed by the resource strategies have had a positive but partial influence’ with the clear need for clear objectives and targets, and the establishment of data centre for natural resources being highlighted (Mudgal et al., 2010).

Framing policy


EU’s thematic strategy on prevention and recycling of waste

Describes a number of key objectives as part of an evolving EU policy on waste including; Prevent waste, Promote re-use, recycling and recovery; and Establish the European recycling society. The aim of this strategy is to reduce the negative impact on the environment that is caused by waste throughout its life-span, from production to disposal, via recycling. The objective is that every item of waste is seen not only as a source of pollution but also a potential resource to be exploited (European commission, 2005b).

Framing policy


Communication Integrated Product Policy (IPP)

Aims to support the realisation of environmental product innovations in order to achieve a broad reduction of all environmental impacts along a product’s life cycle (Commission, 2001). Due to the nature of products, IPP cannot consist of a single general policy instrument, a variety of measures must be employed to achieve the IPP objective (In example standards or so-called soft environmental policy instruments such as activities regarding voluntary agreements or environmental labelling.) (Rehfeld et al., 2007). European Commission, Integrated Product Policy Communication (IPP), 2003 states “LCA is the best framework for assessing the potential environmental impacts of products, but the debate is ongoing about good practice” with the European commission committing to; developing a handbook on best practice, Co-ordinating to make data more accessible and systematically collected, Regularly update directory of LCA databases, and develop a platform to facilitate communication and exchanges. All of the above commitments have or are in the process of being delivered.

Specific instrument

2005 revised 2009

Eco-design directive

Provides for improving the environmental performance of energy related products (ERPs) through ecodesign and prevents distinct national legislations on environmental performance becoming obstacles to the intra-EU trade. The ecodesign requirements must not lower the functionality of a product, its safety, or have a negative impact on its affordability or consumers’ health. The Directive is under the responsibility of DG Enterprise and Industry and DG Energy (European commission, 2012b).

Specific instrument


Energy-using products (EuP) Directive

The main objective of the EuP Directive is to bring about improvements in energy efficiency throughout a products lifecycle, from cradle to grave. Its focuses on the design phase as it is considered that up to 80% of the environmental load of a product is fixed during design. EuP is a “Framework” Directive which outlines the legal context within which implementing measures will be developed and targeted at particular product groups (Premier Farnell, 2009).

Specific instrument


Environmental Technology Action Plan (ETAP)

The plan covers a range of actions to promote eco-innovation and the take-up of environmental technologies including: promoting research and development, mobilising funds, helping to drive demand and improving market conditions. Information from LCAs can contributing to meeting performance targets within the Environmental Technology Action Plan (ETAP). In Ireland specific consideration will be given to projects that have the potential to address the three specific challenges identified in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “State of the Environment Report 2004”, namely: eutrophication of surface waters, meeting international commitments on air emissions and better management of waste (Department of the Environment, 2012a).

Specific instrument


Green public procurement (GPP)

Defined in the Communication (COM (2008) 400) “Public procurement for a better environment” as “a process whereby public authorities seek to procure goods, services and works with a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle when compared to goods, services and works with the same primary function that would otherwise be procured.” The EU committed to “aiming to achieve by 2010 a proposed a target of 50% of all the EU’s public procurement tendering procedures to be “green”. Although this target has not been met a recent report monitoring the uptake of GPP found 26% of the last contracts signed in the 2009-2010 period by public authorities in the EU included all core GPP criteria with 55% of these contracts having at least one EU core GPP criterion, showing that some form of green procurement is being done at a large scale (European commission, 2012c). In Ireland the GPP national action plan has been developed to make half the estimated €15 billion in public spending to meet green procurement criteria (Department of the Environment, 2012b).

Specific instrument

2002 and Under review

Environmental product declarations (EPDs)

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are life-cycle based ecolabels that disclose the environmental performance of the product, similar to nutrition information labels. In France a law was passed in 2007 “the Grenelle Environment” which requires environmental product declarations for all mass produced consumer goods. 2012 has seen experiments begin to establish best practice to implement this law. The European Commission is following suit and has begun a program to develop guidance on environmental product declarations indicating this will be widespread shortly.

Specific Instument



Is in general a voluntary scheme where producers, importers and retailers can choose to apply for the label for their products. Ecolabel criteria focus on the stage / stages with the highest environmental impact during a products life cycle. By the end of 2011, more than 1,300 licences had been awarded, and at present, more than 17,000 products have the EU Ecolabel. A licence gives permission to use the EU Ecolabel logo. (European commission, 2012d).


Legal requirement


Restriction on the use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS)

Adopted in 2003 by the European Union the directive took effect in 2006 becoming law in each member state. It restricts the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacture of electronic and electrical equipment. It correlates with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) 2002/96/EC which is part of a legislative initiative to reduce toxic e-waste.

Legal requirement


Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

The WEEE Directive 2002/96/EC is an EU Directive founded on the principle of “Producer Responsibility” and its general objectives are to prevent waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and to improve the environmental performance of all operators involved in the life cycle of such including producers, distributors and consumers (European commission, 2012e).

Legal requirement


End of Life Vehicles

Directive 2000/53/ EC of the European Parliament on end of life vehicles was developed to limit or exclude the presence of dangerous substances including lead, cadmium, chromium IV and mercury in vehicles with the purpose of minimising their environmental impact. In 2006, the target for reuse and recovery was a minimum of 85% of the materials rising to 95% in 2015 with most major OEMs such as Ford, Honda etc on the way to meeting these targets.

Legal requirement


EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive 94/62/EC

This directive regulates the heavy metal content of, and recovery of any packaging put on the market. Implemented in Ireland through the Waste Management (Packaging) Regulations S.I. No. 61 of 2003 as amended by the Waste Management (Packaging) (Amendment) Regulations S.I. No. 871 of 2004. While it should be noted the directive is under review at European level, the legislation is now well developed in Ireland with waste recovery schemes like REPAK in place.

Legal requirement


Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH)

REACH came into force in 2007 with the aim to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals, the promotion of alternative test methods, the free circulation of substances on the internal market and enhancing competitiveness and innovation (European commission, 2012f). Manufacturers have to register each substance, assess the risks it poses and pass on the safety information to downstream users.

Legal requirement


Batteries Directive

Directive 2006/66/EC prohibits placing certain batteries and accumulators with mercury or cadmium content above a fixed threshold on the market and promotes a high rate of collection and recycling of waste batteries and accumulators. The aim is the reduction of hazardous substances (mercury, cadmium and lead) dumped in the environment (European commission, 2012g).



1997 revised 2000 and 2006

Life cycle assessment:

ISO 14040/44

When concerned with the environmental impact of a new or existing product, it may well be beneficial to carryout a complete life cycle assessment. In such a case you would look to the ISO 14040 certificate. It evaluates the product’s LCA framework and is intended to make reliable and reusable assessments. It endeavours to provide a clear overview of the findings to stakeholders, including those who have limited knowledge of life cycle assessment. The specific requirements and guidelines for LCAs are in ISO 14044.



Environmental site assessment:

ISO 14015

This International Standard provides guidance on how to conduct an “Environmental assessment of sites and organizations” (EASO) through a systematic process of identifying environmental aspects and environmental issues and determining, if appropriate, their business consequences.


ISO 14020 – 1998 & rev 2000

ISO 14024 – 1999

ISO 14025 – 2000 & rev 2006

Environmental product declaration (EPD), Labelling: ISO 14020/24/25

ISO 14020/24/25 will help you label your product. It includes quantified data which helps ensure environmental data published is of a certain quality. These product labels are built upon the Life Cycle Assessment which means the information generated is relevant, verified and comparable.



Environmental Performance Evaluation:

ISO 14031

When you don’t require a certificate and just want to measure your environmental performance, this document gives guidance on environmental performance evaluation. It provides management with reliable and verifiable information on an ongoing basis through its Plan-Do-Check-Act system (PCDA).



Integrating environmental aspects into product design and development:

ISO 14062

Guidance standard providing generic instruction on how to incorporate environmental criteria into product design and development. It can act as a reminder or a checklist and is applicable to all industry sectors. Other industry sectors have developed similar standards including:-

Standard ECMA – 341, “Environmental design considerations for electronic products” developed by ECMA International.

EN/BSI 13420:2000 – Packaging – Requirements for packaging recovery by material recycling.

BS/EN 13193:2000 – Packaging and the environment – Terminology.



Impact on Climate Change:

ISO 14064

ISO 14064-1:2006 facilitates quantification and reporting of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reductions. It provides stakeholders with an integrated set of tools to achieve their objectives and it enables participation in emissions trading schemes using a globally recognised standard.

Voluntary/ Under construction


Product Carbon Footprint:

ISO 14067

Strives to standardize the maze of product carbon footprint approaches.

Voluntary/ Under construction


Water Footprint:

ISO 14046

Aims to establish harmonized metrics for water footprints.




GHG Protocol Product Standard

This is a product life cycle accounting and reporting standard developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD). This standard is to a large extent in compliance with ISO 14040/44, except it is explicitly focused on greenhouse gas accounting.


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