LCA: how to track if you or your suppliers are heading towards sustainable business?
Life cycle assessment (LCA) can be used for resource costing and risk assessment during the transition from linear to circular economy.
Among many other things, LCA is used to identify opportunities to improve the environmental performance of products at various stages in their life cycle, as well as to enlighten decision-makers in industry, both government or non-government organizations.
Life cycle assessment supports the selection of relevant indicators of environmental performance and measurement methodologies.
LCA can be used for implementing an eco-labelling scheme or making an environmental claim about products, or when the target is to produce an environmental product declaration, EPD.
LCA methodology services its best purpose while conducting an optimization for production process and LCA-derived information is used as a tool to analyze the environmental performance of products. Or when considering the best practices for sustainable manufacturing of items.
The Figure below illustrates the framework of life cycle assessment according to ISO 14040 and how in the continuously changing world LCA itself should not be a “one time per product” static event.
Comparing individual LCAs
When choosing between different products or suppliers, the comparison between individual LCAs has to be conducted with extreme care. To remain conformant to ISO standards, results from the calculations must undergo independent critical review if they are to be used for comparative assertions to be disclosed to the public.
The system boundaries used in assessment and product category rules (PCR) must be acknowledged. Different application areas, whether geographical, sectorial, or related to specific impact categories, may indeed require different kinds of data, specific definitions of functional units to make comparisons fair, and specific impact assessment methods.
We are living in a complex world and products are formed from multiple locations with variable parallel processes.
For example, how can the final product’s environmental impact be transparently compared if one original equipment manufacturer (OEM) buys certain modules or parts from a supplier and the other OEM produces them in-house, how can their end-products be compared against each other?
Will all the alternative suppliers provide information on their elemental flows of production and are the final product manufacturers willing to share all the information from their supply chain?
The different types of environmental declarations are listed below; the last one, Type III, Environmental product declaration, EPD exist to harmonize what must be included and communicated when a declaration is made for different product types; furniture, textiles, machinery, plastic in primary form, etc.
Different environmental declarations according to ISO 14020 series:
|Type I||Type II||Type III|
|Generic Name||Eco Labelling||Self-declared Environmental Claim||Environmental Declaration|
|Target Audience||Retail consumer||Retail consumer||Retail / Industrial consumer|
|Communication Method||Environmental label||Text & symbol||Environmental Profile Data Sheet, EPD®|
|Scope||Whole life cycle||Single aspect*||Whole life cycle|
|USE OF LCA||No||No||Yes|
|Practitioner||Third party||First Party||Third/ First party|
|Governing Body||Eco-Labelling body||Consumer bureau||Accreditation Body|
|* A specific aspect of a life cycle or a single environmental attribute|
Table adapted from: Lee, Kun-Mo and Park, P, “Application of LCA to type III environmental declaration,”Environmental Management, Vol. 28 No. 4, pp.533~546, 2001
Right on track for sustainability
To answer the questions in the title, here are some important signs to check for:
- Are the claims, for instance, of carbon neutral materials or products backed with a transparent LCA program or scientific studies? If not, some caution should be taken.
- Check if the published LCA data is up-to-date or getting outdated.
- Are the claims based on something published outside the manufacturers’ gates without any impact flow inputs from the producer? Then there might be some early symptoms of greenwashing, which is a major business risk no one should get involved with.
- Are the used LCA-based claims discussed with or without system boundaries or end of life options? At this point we should always consider the burden from end-of life, even if the processes are still scaling up, to make it a genuine life cycle assessment. Only then sustainable design can help to cover the missing caps as they are first acknowledged.
- If LCA is not referred directly there can be other methods for evaluating corporate sustainability performance. For example, the Global reporting initiative known as GRI is a widely used framework as sustainability reporting model for the companies reporting on the organization’s economic, environmental, and social performance.
- Many businesses have the sustainability topic presented on their online presence. There should be a contact person or details on program if any.
Each company has to decide what data to collect and how to report it.
This usually demands the development of new internal management processes. The challenge is to develop solutions for SME corporate sustainability from an SME perspective, establishing the link between sustainable business practice and business benefit.
The importance of SMEs for sustainability cannot be underestimated. The cumulative impacts of small to medium-size enterprises are considerable. SMEs make up more than 90 percent of businesses worldwide. They also account for 50 percent of GDP of all countries and for 60 percent of their employment, on average. (Global Reporting Initiative. Small, Smart and Sustainable. GRI Research and Development. Amsterdam: http://www.globalreporting.org)
Don’t let this all be too confusing or limit you.
When you start considering the life cycle, you need to start from the baseline and mapping if you want to improve and develop your environmental impacts.
What are your production’s significant elemental flows and the impact categories they lead? Can you combine financial numbers and benefits to resource management?
When those issues are recognized, sustainable development can start. Investment in lifecycle assessment is the same as mitigating business risks during transition into circular economy.
LCA at ABM
ABM conduct LCA based on principles and approaches outlined in ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 using dataset and GaBi software from Sphera Company (former ThinkStep).
Previously ABM relied on declarations from its raw material suppliers on environmental declarations or LCA. These peer-reviewed environmental claims are only sufficient up to a certain point.
ABM purchases bio-based polymers from renewable sources and increases their environmental impact during its own manufacturing process, which produces bioplastic composites by adding bioerodible glass fibers based on ABM’s own technology with transportation and packaging.
After conducting “what if scenario –type” LCA for selected composite materials, the performed life cycle assessment found that the greatest environmental impact comes from the production of the polymeric raw material itself, main impact is formed before raw materials enters the ABM gate.
Finally, it was concluded that ABM produces environmentally friendly plastic alternatives. The future EoL options and their challenges were acknowledged and discussed during the LCA result interpretation phase. Standardization for downstream processes for bio-based materials need to be further developed in the industry.
New datasets will be acquired and LCAs updated to meet the current status for materials and energy. Maximizing the use of renewable carbon is a sustainable strategy that will enable fossil free plastic production as it is detached from the fossil energy which is strictly connected fossil material conversion.
By Engr. Marjo Ketonen – She is Research and Development Engineer at Arctic Biomaterials Oy. She has a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the TAMK Tampere University of Applied Sciences, and a Master’s degree in LCA, Risk Management in Circular Economy. She is also responsible, since the beginning of 2016, of the current company’s Technical Business Units Research Functions and Research Infrastructure, Mechanical and Thermal Testing. She has an in-depth knowledge of Polymer Science and polymer processing solutions from previous positions as Polymeric Material Processing and Solutions - Research Engineer at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland ltd. - Functional Plastics Unit. She has also worked as a guest lecturer at TAMK University about “Open Innovation” and “IPR Issues”.