A Critique of the Life Cycle Assessment

[10/24/10]

Swsustainability_lca

This was a response paper I wrote for a class, so forgive the essay-ness of the format.


 The LCA is a useful tool for companies who want to move beyond simply complying with industry standards and find ways to reduce their products’ impact on the environment. It can be difficult to find accurate data at times enable to conduct the LCA, but it’s honest. Whether it’s making a difference is another story. The Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC) states specifically that the “life cycle assessment is a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach for assessing industrial systems. ‘Cradle-to-grave’ begins with the gathering of raw materials from the earth to create the product and ends at the point when all materials are returned to the earth” (1). Although the SAIC touches on the recycling and reuse of material, expressing the assessment as a “cradle-to-grave” approach makes it more difficult to make the leap to “cradle-to-cradle.” 


Because analysts to can use the LCA to “compare the health and ecological impacts between two or more rival products/processes or identify the impacts of a specific product or process” (3), this approach is still mainly working within the existing system of product manufacturing. The database of materials and processes are limited to what is currently being used rather than necessarily what could be used. For example, to lower the eco-toxicity of a flashlight, one could change the material from primary aluminum to recycled or secondary aluminum. Even if the other materials and processes remain the same, the company can still say that are helping the environment. All this is does is change the “bad” into the “less bad.” 


What if the LCA did not only focus on the negative impacts of the product to the environment, but also on the positive impacts? Currently, if trim/scrap from the manufacturing process is reused, “they are considered ‘home scrap,’ which is part of an internal recycling loop. These materials are not included in the inventory analysis, because they do not cross the boundaries of the subsystem” (22). Because they’re not included in the in the inventory, this does not move the product’s impact towards a positive or negative direction. If products of consumption created excess trim that was beneficial for the environment, there would be no way to gauge its positive impact within the current LCA format. 


When a business is trying to advocate for sustainability, they want to be able to use the LCA to determine how much environmental impact their products cause. The LCA is a great way to understand how in need one’s product may be of a redesign. Yet, the LCA may propel the thinking that reduction along with reuse and recycling, is the only way to go; it’s an assessment that’s specifically about the cradle-to-grave procedure, allows people to work only with what data that is available for materials and processes, and expresses impacts in only negative terms. Instead of operating under this system of scarcity, we need reinvention and restructurization of what materials should be used and how they should be processed to create goods. Hence, it’s ultimately “less bad,” and not enough.

 

 1. United States: Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Life Cycle Assessment: Principles and Practice. Cincinnati: Scientific Applications International Corporation, 2006.

 

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