What is Life-cycle Analysis (LCA)?
Life-cycle Analysis (LCA) is the comprehensive analysis of a product’s entire life cycle system in terms of sustainability.
Through the methodology every single stage of a product’s life cycle is scrutinised; from the extraction of materials from the earth, it’s waterways or the atmosphere, to the manufacture of the product itself, its packaging, its transportation, the use of the product after purchase, and what happens to the product and its component parts after it is no longer used.
All of these stages obviously have an impact on the environment but an LCA can also be used to assess the impact on wider society if the brief and data is available for analysis. So, for example sourcing supplies locally will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and will also help the local economy with other local businesses employing more people. With this in mind it’s worth thinking through how you define what you want to measure and also what data you will use to measure it. A LCA is a great tool to help drive improvement but you need to define what you are aiming to improve.
As far as product related environmental impacts are concerned it’s estimated that over 80% of these are determined during the design phase; so LCA provides the insight needed to help make better design decisions. Many different types of LCA can be used, but in summary if more detail is required, then the more complete your LCA needs to be. There are a number of LCA-related assessments, such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) which provide a standard way of declaring the impacts of manufacturing and using products. And there are ‘conceptual’, ‘simplified’ and ‘detailed’ LCAs which break down as shown below.
Very basic level looking at qualitative inventory, to create flow diagrams and understand, for example, which components have the highest relative environmental impact.
Basically a full LCA but using more generic data and standard modules for energy production. A simplified assessment that focuses on the most important environmental aspects, and thoroughly assesses the reliability of the results.
The full process of in-depth data collection, highly specific to the product in question.
It’s important to realise that whichever LCA model you use, it will be adaptable to a number of different types of project. You can use it to perform a variety of assessments; whatever best matches your project needs at any given time.
Want to hear our top ten tips for designers approaching LCA? Continue reading here.