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Sustainability | Certification | Green Concrete | Sustainability Committee | Building Codes


What is Life Cycle Assessment?


Life cycle assessment, or LCA, is the investigation and evaluation of the environmental impacts of a product, process or service. LCA evaluates all stages of a productís life and considers each stage interdependently. Figure 1 provides a schematic of a typical product manufacturing process. Inputs include raw materials and energy. Life cycle stages include raw material acquisition, manufacturing, product use, and finally, recycling or waste management. The outputs, many of which impact the environment negatively, include atmospheric emissions, waterborne wastes, solid wastes, co products and other releases.




Figure 1


Figure 1: Life cycle stages, inputs and outputs for life cycle assessment (adapted from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)).


LCA is the most comprehensive approach to determining the environmental life cycle impacts of a product and can be used as a tool to make decisions that could result in lower environmental impacts. Per the International Organization for Standards (ISO) 14040 and 14044, LCA is conducted in four distinct phases:


Goal Definition and Scoping - Define and describe the product, process or activity being analyzed.


Inventory Analysis - Identify and quantify energy, water and materials use and environmental releases. Environmental releases may be solid waste, air emissions and waste water discharges.


Impact Assessment - Assess the potential human and ecological effects of energy, water and material usage, and the environmental releases identified in the inventory analysis.


Interpretation - Evaluate the results and select the preferred product or process.


The first phase, Goal Definition and Scoping, is relatively simple since one can generally identify and define the product or process being analyzed. The second phase, Inventory Analysis, often called life cycle inventory (LCI), is more difficult since one must have the capability to measure and account for all inputs and outputs from a particular product or process. In many cases, it is relatively easy to measure the inputs to a product or process but it becomes much more difficult and expensive to measure environmental releases or outputs. The third phase, Impact Assessment, is the most complex phase of an LCA. In this phase, one attempts to equate the environmental releases identified in the Inventory Analysis phase to their potential human and ecological effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts (TRACI) that allows for the examination of the potential for impacts associated with the raw material usage and chemical releases resulting from the processes involved in producing a product.


Figure 2 provides a schematic representation of potential environmental impacts and one possible interpretation of their relative importance for the purposes of identifying the most critical impacts. The relative importance of each impact might change depending on the product or process being analyzed or on other factors such as location and/or political influences. For example, many governments have declared climate change or global warming potential as todayís most important environmental impact.



Figure 2

Figure 2: Environmental impacts and relative importance of impacts (adapted from United States Green Building Council (USGBC)).


LCA is the basis by which an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) are developed. EPDs are third party verified (certified) reports published by product manufacturers that provide quality assured and comparable information regarding environmental performance of their product. The EPD basically reports the LCA results in a uniform fashion.


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