How do we know if one product is really better for the environment than another? Does paper made with 100% recycled fibres have a smaller environmental footprint than a product that contains 60% recycled fibres, but whose production process is “cleaner”? Is an electric car really “greener” than a gasoline-powered car? Science helps us answer questions like these. Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is the only recognized method of assessing the environmental impact of a product throughout its life cycle. With LCA, facts trump “greenwashing”!
Now, what is LCA?
LCA: a definition is worth a thousand words
Life-cycle assessment presents an overall vision in order to assess the environmental footprint of activities and processes linked to a product’s useful life.
Assessment of a product begins with the steps taken before its manufacture (extraction of raw materials) until it is no longer used or reused (end of life). The impacts of transportation, manufacturing and product use are also taken into account. Each of these steps involves resource use, energy use and waste generation which lead to more or less harmful effects on the environment. A product’s “environmental footprint” is calculated by adding up all of these effects. LCA takes every step into account, making it a complete, coherent and trustworthy method of assessment.
Three indicators of environmental damage
Each product has a unique environmental footprint. Like a debt, it can be larger or smaller when compared to our environmental “bank account.” The results of an LCA are usually divided into three damage indicators, which represent crucial protection areas. The results for these three indicators are obtained by grouping different factors that impact one of the three protection areas. They vary from one method to another but for the ReCiPe 1.06 method, they are:
- Damage to human health, which includes ozone layer depletion, human toxicity, ionizing radiation, photochemical oxidation, climate change as well as fine particulate matter emissions.
- Damage to the quality of ecosystems, which includes climate change, terrestrial acidification, sea and fresh water eutrophication, terrestrial and sea and fresh water ecotoxicity as well as the use of agricultural urban and natural lands.
- Damage to non-renewable resources, which includes the use of fossil or mineral resources that cannot be replaced naturally in the short term.
Comparing apples with apples!
When it is time to compare two products, other elements may complicate the equation.
First, and most importantly, the products compared must have the same “function.” Thus, the LCA of a bike cannot be compared to that of an electric lawnmower! You want to compare two different brands of paper towel? This can be done because each product has the same function: cleaning up messes. But does the same amount of each product absorb the same amount of mess? If the answer is no, then it will be necessary to adjust the amounts used in calculating their comparative LCAs.
A story worth following
When we know the basics and the complexity of life-cycle assessments, we understand that the many calculations behind this method must be made by experts using specialized software. Keep an eye out for our future posts. We will be sharing more information about the LCA process as well as our concrete results. We enjoy reading your comments, so make sure to send us your thoughts!