You may have heard the term Life Cycle Assessment, or Life Cycle Analysis, and wondered what it means from an environmental, carbon-footprint-reducing perspective.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) looks at the entire life cycle of a product to assess its total environmental impact. Its the complete picture, the total carbon footprint, of the product and service that you are consuming.
For instance, let’s take a look at the LCA of a printed hardcover book. The analysis would include planting and harvesting the tree, hauling the wood to the paper mill, grinding it up into paper fibers, mixing in any recycled paper pulp and other ingredients, drying, cutting, shipping, printing, binding and selling. Basically, the entire spectrum of emitted CO2 and other greenhouse gases related to transportation, production, manufacturing and marketing the finished product.
LCA also takes into account the environmental impact of discarding or recycling it – cradle to grave.
Basically, LCA summarizes the collective environmental impact of any product or service to help you decide how critical it is to your well-being compared to its long-term environmental impact.
Oftentimes, the LCA bottom-line is not readily intuitive and will really surprise you. For example, take any vegetable produced on a non eco-friendly farm compared to a steak from a sustainable, grass-fed beef farm. If the beef comes from a farm that is environmentally responsible, has a diverse system in which nothing is wasted and reduces its carbon footprint by only distributing locally in fuel-efficient vehicles, the LCA will be rather small.
On the flip side, a vegetable or fruit that is produced overseas on an industrial farm that uses harmful pesticides and chemicals that run off into the local water system — or on a farm that does not employ crop rotation and depletes the soil year after year — and then ships it in huge, non-biodegradable plastic containers thousands of miles to the U.S., may have a much larger LCA.
Even though vegetarian option over meat is typically better for the environment, there are many cases when meat may be much more environmentally friendly and produce a smaller carbon footprint. LCA compiles the entire picture, rather than concentrating on any one major factor.
Although LCA studies are becoming more and more visible in the U.S., Europe has been leading the way for quite some time. Maybe one day, LCA will be included on the standard information panel on all products. Currently, no standard or universally-accepted LCA formula exists, but some degree of flexibility is built in so that a product’s impact from can be looked at from a variety of different viewpoints.
For instance, LCA studies show that delivery services versus personal pickup are better for the environment. At first glance, you would think UPS or Fedex delivery would be worse for the environment because the trucks they use are huge, gas-guzzling behemoths. However, when using LCA to evaluate the process of getting a product into your hands, studies have found that delivery services are more efficient than expected because they deliver so many packages per day. They often cut out the need for regional warehouses maintained by most retail stores. The end result is a huge carbon footprint reduction when people order from an online store rather than drive to the store itself.
Another example comes from a study in England in which they found imported tomatoes in the off-season were often better for the environment than local English tomatoes grown in local greenhouses. Locally grown vegetables avoided transportation impacts, but growing these tomatoes consumed a great deal of energy to warm the buildings and resulting carbon emissions. It was better to simply buy tomatoes grown under the Mediterranean sun in Spain, which were then transported by boat in bulk to England.
LCA looks holistically at everyday commodities and products to evaluate their collective environmental impact through the stages of growth, production and consumption. It’s slowly becoming more and more prevalent in everyday green speak as well, so the next time you hear it mentioned, don’t think of a butterfly maturing from cocoon, to larvae, to butterfly, which is what naturally comes to my mind. Rather, think of what is quickly becoming a new way of judging products to look at their environmental impact and carbon footprint more accurately.