A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a quantitative analysis of complex production systems for the evaluation of impacts and risks associated with a product or service. The associates at Paradigm use the internationally recognized LCA methodology when assessing the environmental impacts of a product, or evaluating the comparative advantages of competing products, management strategies, or production systems across specific environmental impact areas of concern. An LCA consists of four iterative stages: goal and scope definition, life cycle inventory, life cycle impact assessment, and the interpretation of results and reporting.
Defining an appropriate goal and scope are the essential first steps in an effective life cycle assessment. The goal of an LCA clearly defines the environmental impacts that are of greatest concern to stakeholders. The scope of an LCA defines which life cycle stages will be included in the assessment. These system boundaries can be broad or narrow, depending on the product or service that is being evaluated. Due to the complex nature of modern supply chains, a broad definition of the system boundaries can be helpful for identifying which processes result in the greatest environmental burdens. Oftentimes, opportunities for reducing waste, environmental impacts, and costs are found in unexpected areas of the supply chain. Once these “hotspots” are identified, a detailed assessment with a narrower scope will illuminate further potential for reducing environmental burdens. In turn, businesses are able to use this information to positively impact on their bottom line.
During the life cycle inventory (LCI) step, the amount of materials and energy consumed or produced are inventoried for each node in the supply chain. The individual flows that are inventoried within a system often include water, energy, land, or other materials or products consumed or produced within the system.
During the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) step, the system flows that were inventoried in the LCI are used to calculate the total environmental impacts that occur within each impact category under consideration. Common impact categories include water depletion, land transformation, and climate change. For each impact category considered in the assessment, category indicators are selected. These indicators help to define the units for the impacts that are quantified in the LCA. For example, the equivalent mass of CO2 emissions is a commonly used indicator when reporting climate change impacts. The amounts of each impact indicator are calculated for a production system using characterization models that have been painstakingly developed and vetted by scientists, government organizations, and NGOs.
The final step in an LCA requires a systematic approach to the interpretation of assessment results. In this step, the assessment results are summarized and the final conclusions and recommendations are communicated. The ISO standards for LCA recommend that this step include documentation of the completeness, limitations, and significance of the assessment. It is essential that the assessment’s guiding assumptions, level of accuracy, and completeness are well understood and clearly communicated to stakeholders. At Paradigm, our associates have years of experience conducting LCAs and presenting LCA results, and are well versed in ISO requirements. When partnering with Paradigm on an LCA, businesses can expect world-class research and insights that result in a positive impact on their triple-bottom line.