Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) - in depth
Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) seeks to identify possible improvements to goods and services in the form of lower environmental impacts and reduced use of resources across the whole life of the product, called its whole life cycle. The key aim of Life Cycle Thinking is to avoid shifting an environmental effect from one area to another. This means minimising impacts at one stage of the life cycle, or in a geographic region while helping to avoid increases elsewhere.
Why take a life cycle approach?
For many years, reducing environmental impacts focused on production processes, treatment of waste and effluent streams. This remains important. These actions help, for example, to successfully address the issues of reducing air and water pollution from a specific operation. However, this does not necessarily reduce the negative environmental impacts related to the consumption of materials and resources. It also does not account for the shifting of burdens; solving one problem while creating another. Solutions, therefore, may not be the best and may even be counter-productive. Life Cycle Thinking can solve this problem.
A win-win situation
Life Cycle Thinking can help identify opportunities and lead to decisions that help improve environmental performance and provide economic benefits. As well as considering the environmental impacts of the processes within our direct control, attention is also given to the raw materials used, supply chains, product use, the effects of disposal and the possibilities for re-use and recycling. Using this approach demonstrates that a company is taking responsibility for reducing environmental impacts.
Life Cycle Assessment
An important tool for Life Cycle Thinking is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This tries to provide hard facts and measurements which can be related to one another to compare different impacts, to rate the importance of emissions to air against emissions to water, for example. However, even though it tries to work with measurements, many judgements still have to be made in an LCA.
The international standard, ISO 14044, defines LCIA as the "phase of life cycle assessment aimed at understanding and evaluating the magnitude and significance of the potential environmental impacts of a product system".
In a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the emissions and resources consumed to make a specific product are compiled and documented in a Life Cycle Inventory (LCI). The resource inputs and emissions (elementary flows) are then classified and characterised to show their significance in a number of environmental impact categories. The following diagram shows how it works:
Once the analysis is complete, the data may be 'modelled', seeing what happens if improvements are made to one area, such as an alternative source for an ingredient. This will check if there are any negative effects in other areas of the model.
Because of the complexity and cost of LCA, it is only really suitable for large companies at the moment.