Circular guide

Life Cycle assessment (LCA)

Didactic Units 3.3

The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach as a tool for measuring the environmental impact of production processes.The Life Cycle Assessment methodology is part of the broader theoretical approach of Life Cycle Thinking, which offers a holistic view of the production and consumption of goods or services, with the aim of evaluating the environmental impacts generated during the entire life cycle.

To give a specific definition of LCA, it is possible to refer to that proposed by SETAC (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry) according to which “An LCA is an objective process of assessing environmental loads connected with a process, a product or activity, by identifying and quantifying the energy and materials used and waste released into the environment […]. The assessment includes the entire life cycle of the product, process or activity, including the extraction and treatment of raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, use, reuse, recycling and final disposal. “

Based on what emerges from the proposed definition, the LCA analysis can be considered a valid support tool in the field of industrial policy, as, through an in-depth evaluation of the material and energy flows associated with a specific production process, companies can identify the process areas to be subjected to improvements with a view to reducing the environmental loads generated, efficient use of resources and cost rationalization.

The LCA procedure: the reference standards UNI EN ISO 14040 and UNI EN ISO 14044

In order to create a reference common framework for the LCA procedure, over the years a progressive standardization process has been developed by national and international bodies which has led to the creation of the ISO 14040 family of standards. Specifically this provides the reference principles for carrying out a Life Cycle Analysis, in addition to some general methodological indications detailed in the subsequent ISO 14041, ISO 14042 and ISO 14043 standards, currently merged into the most recent ISO 14044 standard of 2018.

According to the provisions of the above regulations, the LCA procedure therefore consists of four main phases:

Definition aims and objectives (Definition of objective and scope )

Inventory analysis (Life Inventory )

Impact assessment (Life Cycle Impact assessment )

Interpretation and improvement (Evaluation of improvement )

1.Definition of goals and objectives

The definition of the aims and objectives represents the initial phase of the evaluation, in which the purposes of the evaluation are established, as well as the impact categories that will be analyzed.
In this first moment, particular importance is attributed to the definition of the boundaries of the system that will be subjected to analysis, the latter definable as the set of process units interconnected by product flows (ISO 14040). Equally important is the identification of the functional unit, that is the reference respect to which all data (input and output) are normalized. In other words, it represents the product, service or function on which to set the analysis and comparison with possible alternatives.
For example, if you want to carry out the analysis of the impacts related to a recycling or waste treatment system, these could be evaluated per ton of waste treated (our functional unit in fact).

2. Inventory Analysis (LCI)

The next phase of a LCA involves the creation and analysis of the inventory (LCI), which includes the collection of data that will be used in the calculation phase, for the quantification of the impacts generated by the analyzed system.
More precisely, this stage envisages three fundamental steps which can be summarized as follows: the creation of a flow diagram that allows to identify the main operations of the analyzed process; the collection of data that can be classified in turn into primary (i.e. deriving from direct surveys), secondary (obtained from literature or existing databases), tertiary (calculated on the basis of estimates and average values); finally, the processing and presentation of results in different categories (consumption of raw materials, gaseous emissions, waste produced …) with reference to the previously identified functional unit.

3.  Evaluation of the impacts

Moving on to the assessment of the impacts, it is divided into two mandatory phases (classification and characterization) and two optional (normalization and weighing). By focusing on the former, the classification represents the moment in which data collected in the previous phases are divided into specific impact categories having effects on a local, regional and global scale.
Among the main impact categories usually analyzed we find:

  • Greenhouse effect (global scale )
  • Acidification (regional)
  • Eutrophication (regional)
  • Tropospheric ozone destruction (global)
  • Photochemical smog (local)
  • Resource depletion (global)
  • Soil degradation (local)

Simultaneously with the identification of the impact categories, based on the old standard ISO 14042 (now incorporated as already mentioned in ISO14044), the identification of specific impact indicators such as kg CO2 equivalent in the case of the “contribution to the greenhouse effect” category. The classification is then followed, as mentioned, by the characterization procedure, which aims to determine in a homogeneous and quantitative way the contribution of the individual emissions, expressed through the appropriate previously identified indicators and the characterization coefficients of each pollutant. Always referring to the case of the greenhouse effect, this impact category will be described considering the substances emitted that contribute to global warming of the planet. The emissions of each substance, calculated over the entire life cycle of the analyzed system, will be multiplied by the appropriate Global Warming Potential (GWP) coefficient and by simple sum of the contributions of the analyzed substances, it will obtain the aggregate value of the indicator in question.

4. Interpretation and improvement

The last step of a LCA, in accordance with the reference standard, is finally represented by the interpretation of the results and the improvement activities. The results deriving from the previous phases are thus summarized, analyzed and discussed, with the aim of identifying the components of the system to be subjected to planned improvement interventions, thus ensuring mitigation of the environmental impacts generated by them.

The benefits of life cycle analysis

The ductility of the LCA techniques, which allow as seen to evaluate all the phases of a production process (from the cradle to the grave), has led to a growing attention for the latter. Suffice it to say that the Life Cycle Analysis is the basis of many voluntary environmental policy tools, progressively introduced at community and national level, including first of all the European Ecolabel, the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) and the voluntary national scheme “Made Green Italy”.

Within the company boundaries, the procedure briefly described in the previous paragraphs certainly represents (although not exempt from some critical issues) a tool capable of determining multiple benefits. First of all, the evaluation of one’s own business processes, of one’s products or services, allows to make the picture of the situation by identifying both the critical elements and the strengths of the analyzed system, with the support of objective data. This can therefore be the first step to identify and adopt improvement actions, which allow to start (or accelerate) a company path towards greater environmental sustainability, thanks to the reduction of impacts and use more rational resources, with the addition of indisputable economic advantages. On the latter front, an analysis that extends beyond the classic company boundaries could lead to the realization of less expensive interventions such as, for example, the identification of the suppliers and raw materials more sustainable .

Incorporate the considerations that emerged from the LCA analysis, as well as representing a tool for the improvement of production processes, can help in the redesign of the same in order to manage, for example, some aspects of the products such as recyclability and durability at the end of their life, these aspects which are essential especially from a circular economy perspective . To conclude, the advantages on the communication front should also be emphasized, since the results of the LCA studies are verifiable and supported by solid and standardized scientific bases, in order to guarantee correct information for consumers, thus directing their choices towards sustainable services or products.

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