The LCI phase examines all the inputs and outputs in the
product’s life cycle, beginning with raw material extraction and
extending through manufacture to the consumer-use phase
and, finally, through to disposal (or recycling) of the product
Next, the life-cycle impact assessment translates the LCI
results into environmental impacts. These can be assessed at
either the midpoint—for example, water use, eutrophication
or land use—or endpoint levels such as the impact on human
health, resource depletion or ecosystem quality.
The final interpretation phase identifies, quantifies, and
evaluates information from the results of the LCI and LCIA. It
should result in a set of conclusions and recommendations,
and in order to comply with ISO 14040 (2006) and ISO 14044
(2006) standards, the LCA must be critically reviewed by a
panel, with the results made available to the public.
“In theory, concepts of LCA can be applied to any value
chain that involves any kind of material, energy, packaging,
processes, products, technologies, processes, or services,”
explains Bill Flanagan, director of the Ecoassessment Center of
Excellence at GE in Niskayuna, New York, USA. Flanagan also is
chair of the board of directors of the American Center for Life
Cycle Assessment, a non-for-profit membership organization
based in Washington, DC, USA.
Comparing different products or technologies on a functionally equivalent basis can provide strategic insights and
potentially even lead to changes in a company’s business
model, he says. For example, a company that sells music on
compact disc determines through an LCA that it is more advantageous to offer music via download or online streaming.
CAVEATS AND CONUNDRUMS
So, just how robust is the LCA methodology?
“Data are crucial to LCAs, and LCAs are not hard science,”
notes one source, who asked to remain anonymous. “The
input and output data need to be selected as consistently
and stringently as possible, and that may often be difficult.
Nevertheless, LCAs can provide guidelines for policy makers
and other interested parties as long as their potential short-
comings are recognized.”
Thomas P. Gloria, director of sustainability at the Harvard
Extension School (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) and man-
aging director of Industrial Ecology Consultants (Newton, USA)
agrees with this view.
“Datasets can be small in sample size and may not be truly
representative,” he says. “If it is a critical item in your analy-
sis, you need to check, recheck, and understand the uncertain-
ties and variability associated with datasets, which generally
are not well characterized. LCA is a wonderful tool, but there
are other methodologies that might be more appropriate at a
regional or site-specific level.”
Gloria also counsels that interpretation of LCA results
is subjective and, therefore, can lead to difficulties in deci-
sion-making. If the results show an increase in environmen-
tal impact in one category and a decrease in another, “a value
judgment needs to be made.” He emphasizes that “the LCA
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