Life Cycle Assessment

Let us consider a commonly used object: a plastic water bottle. Before ending up on the shelves of our trusted supermarket, the object in question will have to go through several stages. First among them is the extraction of the materials needed to produce the bottle. Then there is the actual manufacturing stage, where the product takes shape, which is followed by the transportation and distribution stages. However, the life of the bottle does not end there: the bottle will in fact be used by the final consumer, and then it will be thrown in the trash and disposed of, recycled, or transformed into a new product according to the principles of the circular economy. Each step in this process has its own impact on the environment.

Life Cycle Assessment (generally known by its acronym LCA), is a detailed analysis used to estimate what effects a product or service causes on the environment, throughout its life cycle, from material extraction to disposal. Life Cycle Assessment helps us understand that there is much more to it than what appears on the surface and helps us look at the big picture. Considering the life cycle of a product in its entirety can be critically important – both for consumers who want to make increasingly informed choices and for companies who want to make their products less and less impactful- in identifying areas for improvement and in making sustainability decisions.

A product life cycle analysis generally consists of four steps. The first is to define the objectives (for example, that of reducing the environmental impact of a product) and the scope of the assessment, and then identify the methods to be used in the analysis. The next step is to create the so-called Life Cycle Inventory, or Life Cycle Inventory: a list that includes all inputs and outputs associated with the product throughout its life cycle. To give a concrete example, inputs can be the materials used in production, and outputs the emissions generated during use and disposal. The third step is to assess the potential environmental impact of each element of the Life Cycle Inventory: during this step, effects on the planet of different types are considered, from CO2 emissions to the release of toxic substances. To put them in perspective, these potential impacts are compared to benchmarks and weighted, and finally combined into a single score that represents the environmental impact of the entire product under consideration. The results obtained are finally interpreted so as to identify opportunities for improvement.

To better understand how this works, let us return to our water bottle. After defining the goal and scope of our analysis, we create the Life Cycle Inventory. One input is definitely oil, extracted for the manufacture of the bottle. We need to take into account all the stages of production- such as modeling, transportation to the place of consumption, use-including, for example, the energy required to transport the water bottles and, perhaps, to cool them-and disposal. For each of our inputs and outputs, we then assess and estimate the potential effects on the environment. For example, during the production phase, high greenhouse gas emissions and high water consumption are generated.

Several studies have evaluated the Life Cycle Assessment of a plastic bottle and the conclusion is unambiguous: during its life cycle, it has a high environmental impact, higher than stainless steel or aluminum bottles (despite the fact that the latter are responsible for higher greenhouse gas emissions). The environmental impact of a product can be reduced through a circular approach, extending the period of resource use as much as possible and minimizing waste.

With the logic of Life Cycle Assessment in mind, the circular economy can be a solution for a more sustainable future. Indeed, the latter would reduce the extraction of natural resources (thus reducing waste and the resulting emissions), the need for new materials, and reduce the environmental impact of the manufacturing process through the design of products that last and are more easily repairable and recyclable. In assessing the potential environmental impact of a circular product, however, it will be necessary to include in the inventory all inputs and outputs that result from the circular model, such as the energy needed to repair a product or the materials needed for restoration and recycling.

Interpretation of the Life Cycle Assessment will be helpful in assessing whether the environmental cost of the energy and materials needed, for example, for repair, are offset and outweighed by the benefits that result from extending the life of the product.

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Arianna Ranieri

Arianna Ranieri is an Economics student, always looking forward to learn and gain experience, especially in the circular economy field. She pursues innovation and strive to be part of the change.