As has been discussed in previous Environmental News for You, climate change, sustainability, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are topics that differ in many ways from traditional environmental or air programs that we deal with, such as:
- Less concern about point source emissions;
- No concern about exact locations of ground-level impacts and health effects;
- Reduction in fuel use is cornerstone of GHG reductions, less so chemical usage;
- 40 years of complex environmental rules, while there are almost none for GHGs;
- Environmental impacts center only on emissions/discharges from your plant, while GHGs also count indirect sources (i.e., transportation, electricity usage).
This article will focus on the last point: taking a more holistic view of GHG emissions. Impacts from GHG emissions (and other parameters) from your products as a whole are known as a life cycle assessment (LCA) or impact (LCI). This has already been debated prominently in public (i.e., cloth vs. disposable diaper debate). Several major retailers, such as WalMart and Tesco, are collecting LCA data of products for consumer education.
The Life Cycle of a Product
Companies are concerned not only with emissions from processes over which they have direct control, but also from other life stages, many of which are contracted out, such as:
- Infrastructure necessary for your products (i.e., research, factories, roads, etc.);
- Mining and production of raw materials;
- Manufacturing of the product;
- Transportation of materials to the factory, product to warehouses and retail stores;
- Consumer sale and use of product; and
- End of life and waste disposal.
Generally, #1 is ignored as the GHG emissions from the building of a factory, roads, etc. serves many, many years and a large quantity of products manufactured.
LCA has moved mainstream as the ISO organization has issued guidelines on how to perform a proper LCA (ISO 14040 and 14044). Until their issuance, there was no agreed-to method on doing an LCA, and thus, “apples and oranges” comparisons were the norm.
How to Do an LCA
For each product that is assessed, an LCA requires the following:
- Define the life cycle stages of each product (mainly numbers 2-6 above);
- Quantify GHG emissions from each life cycle stage, taking weighted averages where necessary (i.e., transportation to different parts of the country). As with a general GHG emissions inventory, data quality is the key;
- Determine impacts by normalizing emissions to an appropriate product value;
- Interpret where reductions are most cost-effective.
Remember that an LCA does not need to be constrained to GHG emissions only. LCAs have been performed for such parameters as water usage, waste generation, etc.
An LCA typically results in a bar graph (“5-headed” plot) that shows normalized GHG emissions (i.e., lb or kg per “widget” or product unit) from the five categories discussed above. This can graphically show from where most of the GHG emissions derive, and tell you whether GHG emissions are mainly from processes in your control or not.
Timberland has performed LCAs for many of their products, and shows customers the results on labels that look similar to “nutrition labels” found on food packages. However, instead of listing the number of calories and all, these labels list the number of grams of GHGs emitted to produce the pair of boots (including the box), and other measurements.
An interesting LCA application is Stonyfield Farms, a yogurt maker which has discussed an LCA on all phases of the production and consumption of their yogurt, and determined that a large percentage of GHG emissions derived from processes out of their control, such as from the raw materials (methane from cows, electricity used in pasteurizing milk) and transportation (refrigerated trucks). The LCA became a powerful strategic tool to focus their GHG emission reductions. While Stonyfield Farms is trying to reduce GHG emissions from their own processes (use of renewable energy, where possible), the LCA enabled them to focus on exact ways to reduce GHG emissions from their suppliers and truckers. For example, they are attempting to reduce packaging to lower truck weight.
One other example of an LCA is companies determining that their new product or use has lower GHG emissions than a competitor’s, and is thus a “better” buy, putting it in a more competitive sales position. With the small, but growing, consumer interest in impacts, LCAs can become a selling tool, as shown by the interest of Wal-Mart and Tesco.
This document is not meant to be a complete how-to on LCAs. All entities should work with an experienced professional when performing an LCA. CCES has professionals experienced in performing LCAs and tie them to your business and environmental goals.