2010 marks the year in which consumers everywhere are more conscious about what they buy and how their purchases impact our planet. Consumers now demand “green” products but there is a lot of misunderstanding in terms of how “green” a product truly is. This article provides the reader a brief introduction on Life Cycle Assessment or LCA, a tool used to understand the real environmental impact of a product. At the end of the LCA overview, the reader will be introduced to an LCA alternative that eco3P.com, the internet’s largest vendor driven eco marketplace, uses to help its vendors communicate to consumers how they identify the “greenness” of their products.
What is LCA?
LCA evaluates the environmental impact of a product from a lifecycle point of view, that is, from the birth (manufacturing) to the death (disposal, end use) of a product. LCA quantifies the environmental impact of not only the product itself, but also its manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. Other references to LCA are: “life cycle analysis”, “cradle to grave”, “eco-balancing”,” material flow analysis “, or “product auditing”.
In order to identify which products are truly green and to quantify the carbon footprint along the supply chain, an LCA must be conducted. This can be extremely complicated because you need to take into account metrics such as the amount of energy used, raw material being sourced, and how much waste (solid, liquid, and gaseous) is generated. To simplify the analysis, the second generation impacts (i.e. the energy required to source the coal, transport the coal, and then heat the coal to create the fire used to manufacture and mould the raw material) should not be accounted for.
There are two main steps in establishing an LCA:
I won’t discuss exactly how a LCA is done, as it can be complex and time consuming. I will, however, discuss the 2 steps that are involved:
Step 1. Describe which emissions will occur and which raw materials are used during the life of a product. This is usually referred to as the inventory step.
Emissions: Carbon Dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas that is emitted and should be accounted for during the manufacturing process. Others include Nitrous Oxide, Methane, Hydrofluorocarbon gases, Perfluorocarbons, Sulphur Hexafluoride.
Raw materials: Certain raw materials that are used are harmful in various stages of a products lifecycle. Take for example Cadmium – a bluish-white metal that is found naturally in the earth’s crust. Cadmium is a pliable metal and is normally used to replace lead in products like jewellery. However, Cadmium is highly toxic and does not easily corrode. It is also a known carcinogen.
Step 2. Assess what the impacts of these emissions and raw material depletions are. This is referred to as the impact assessment step. Continue Reading