EnvironDesign Notebook: Looking for a Bigger Picture

June 1, 2007

By Keri Luly

A closer look at the benefits, complexities and limitations surrounding Life Cycle Assessment.

It's Earth Day (April 22) as I write this-a day that has been special to me since its inception. And speaking of firsts, this June, I will be attending my first NeoCon® as an official member of the commercial interiors world. Last year, I received a brief, sneak peek and was astounded by the width and breadth of products and ideas offered. So I decided this particular article needed width and breadth-a big picture, as is NeoCon.

My (green) big picture of choice: Life Cycle Assessment (aka LCA).

Environmental regulations have always addressed pollutants emitted from "within the fence line" of a manufacturing site and made huge differences in our quality of life. A look at the bigger picture tells us that compliance with those regulations will not keep us from using up the resources that future generations will need. Sustainable development is a goal to prevent that distressing possibility, but making it happen requires some sophisticated choices and better tools to guide decision-making.  LCA is one of the tools.

Life Cycle Assessment is an imprecise but useful method of identifying the potential environmental impacts of products outside the manufacturing site's fence line. A product's life-cycle includes the raw materials harvested and the impacts on that local environment; the manufacturing process impacts; the impacts of the product while it's being used; the impacts related to the product's post-consumer fate; as well as all the packaging and transportation impacts from point to point.

The movement toward LCA thinking is illustrated by shifts in several important organizations. The U.S. Green Building Council is considering "LCA into LEED®"; the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) added LCA to its 14000 series of environmental documents; the Business and  Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association (BIFMA) is evaluating the use of Design for the Environment (DfE) in its draft Sustainability Assessment Standard; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promotes the use of DfE (a technique similar to LCA) by manufacturers.

LCA can be a useful tool for product designers and decision-makers who want to understand their products' environmental impacts by providing a wealth of technical information. The purpose is to look more deeply into impacts in the design process. Much like a child repeatedly asking "why?," an LCA investigator must ask "what else?" during each step of research.

Let's look at the life-cycle impacts of a relatively simple product we all know: an aluminum can. A simple item-no bells or whistles, no moving parts, no electricity or batteries needed, and we all know that aluminum recycles so that's a good thing, right? But did you realize:

  • Global consumption of aluminum cans is approximately 190-210 billion per year, which is three million tons of aluminum. 
  • Americans consume about 100 billion cans per year, or 340 per person. (Think about how long we actually use them-probably a few minutes from opening to tossing). 
  • One ton of primary aluminum requires five tons of bauxite ore to be strip-mined, then smelters and electricity to process the material (plus habitat loss from both the mining and flooding of thousands of square kilometers to build hydroelectric dams for smelting energy). Note: Primary aluminum processing uses 2 percent of the world's electricity, one-third of which is coalgenerated, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Now for the recycling part: Aluminum cans are completely recyclable and doing so saves 90 percent of the energy otherwise used to make them. Terrific, but, Americans only recycled 45 percent of their cans in 2004 (compared to 82 percent in Japan), so 810,000 tons of cans were landfilled in the United States that year. If they had been recycled, 16 billion kilowatt hours of electricity could have been saved. The energy saved from recycling one can could run a laptop for 10 hours. (Container Recycling Institute, May/June 2006 issue, WorldWatch magazine.)

You may have noticed earlier that I referred to LCA as an imprecise method. Although the details regarding the aluminum can example seem to be precise, there is a lot of complexity underlying assessments and they become more complicated as the products do. Before getting into the challenges, let's explore the parts of an LCA and a sampling of the questions asked in the process.

The ISO created a series of documents (ISO 14040-14049) to define and guide the complicated process of an LCA. In summary, an LCA should include:

  • A definition of the goal and scope > What is the intended application? Why is it being done? Who is the audience? 
  • An inventory analysis
    • What data and calculations are needed to quantify the system being assessed? (This may require repeated adjustments and expanded research as the learning proceeds and new information is needed for clarification).
    • An impact assessment and interpretation of results 
    • What is the significance of the findings? What are the conclusions that can be drawn and what recommendations might be provided to decision-makers?

The ISO also calls for fair, complete and accurate reporting of the LCA results and critical reviews by internal experts, external experts and interested parties.

As for "what else?" there is no one set of guiding questions to ask when probing a product life-cycle. But there are commonalities, and the following are only a few of many. In looking at the impacts of obtaining raw materials for products, the investigator might ask "what site residues are washed by rain water into local bodies of water?" Or, if a supplier is providing a component for a product, "what chemicals are used in the component?" At the manufacturing site, questions will pertain to the  impacts on the local environment and wastes/emissions generated in the process, as well as the amount of energy required in production. While the consumer is using the product, the questions might include "how long will the consumer keep the product and will they repair it or replace it?" or "what product emissions could be unsafe if improperly used?" And once the consumer is finished with the product, "is it possible/likely to recycle the product locally?" and "how must it be disposed of safely?" Transportation questions are a part of the whole chain, such as "how many products fit in a truck and how far must it travel?" and "what are the impacts of various transportation methods?"

Lest my overview of LCA and related questions make it appear to be a simple process, I should share a few of its limitations:

  • It is very difficult to define the boundaries, sources of information and degrees of  questioning. (For example, do you investigate the environmental impacts of the workers driving to the factory when evaluating a product?) 
  • A thorough LCA is likely to be very expensive and time-consuming.
  • There is no single, exact right answer, but rather a myriad of possibilities to be considered.
  • Impacts are difficult to identify, compare and evaluate in terms of trade-offs.
  • Social and economic impacts are usually not considered, such as safety or public health outcomes.
  • Impacts may vary by geographic location (such as the availability of local recycling facilities).
  • Results may not be comparable when attempting to compare products among competitors unless each has used the exact same methodology.

In spite of the limitations, LCA can provide valuable information to product designers who want to understand their products' total impacts on the environment so that they can develop priorities and lessen those impacts. Many manufacturers have had success in finding improvements that are better for the environment and the bottom line. Those who have added the social component have often found triple bottom line improvements.

It will be interesting to see what changes come in the next few years as more LCA and DfE projects are undertaken. Will the rising cost of fossil fuels and concern about the related global climate change impacts mean that much centralization of manufacturing will be reversed so that local sites can provide local needs? USGBC already awards points for materials made and extracted within 500 miles of a LEED project. Will some overseas manufacturers return to U.S. shores? Will more companies move from offering products to offering services?

For designers who are wondering whether you should ask for LCA information, here are a few suggestions. Don't demand a product (or avoid one) without some awareness that there is a bigger picture and other issues to consider. Encourage the use of LCA, but recognize it is a huge  undertaking and cannot be done overnight or for every product offering. Understand that the LCA could reveal confidential business information that a firm cannot afford to hand out. Be aware that articles solving the "paper vs. plastic" type of debate may have been written by someone who has a preferred outcome. Question even the "natural" products that look like a solution. Ask questions, encourage big picture thinking-and keep reading this column so we can continue to learn together.

Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the  articles she writes to an environmentally pro-active organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected the Delta Institute, a nonprofit organization that develops and tests ideas for sustainable communities. The organization analyzes environmental and development challenges; brings diverse interests together to plan solutions; focuses public attention on critical issues; develops and demonstrates new tools and policies; and finds the capital needed to finance programs and strengthen community organizations. More information is available at www.delta-institute.org 
Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

Sponsored Recommendations

i+s Spotlights Those Giving Back for Thanksgiving

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, we’re applauding some of our industry’s greatest charitable initiatives.

KOVA’s Dan Sullivan Talks Optimization for Adaptive Reuse

What makes a building a prime candidate? And what technology advances are streamlining the process? Sullivan answers all this and more. Read, then listen...

What's That Sound? Exploring the Vital Role of Acoustics in Commercial Interiors

In this episode, we take a deep dive into the acoustics conversation with our friends at Fräsch.

Take a Tour of New St. Mary's Medical Center by EwingCole

Get an inside look at Essentia Health's new flagship hospital in Duluth, MN that redefines the continuum of care for patients.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!