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The Limitations and Variability Within Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs)

Updated: May 31


Biodegrading Leaf, Environmental Life Cycle


In pursuit of sustainable practices, Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) have become a cornerstone for businesses aiming to understand and mitigate their environmental footprint.


However, behind the seemingly straightforward nature of LCAs lies a tapestry of complexities and nuances. In this article, we embark on a journey to unravel the intricacies, exploring both the limitations and variability that can shape the outcomes of LCAs.


Understanding Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a set of metrics used to assess the overall sustainability performance of a process or product. It includes three primary components:

  1. Environmental life cycle assessment

  2. Life cycle costing analysis

  3. Social life cycle assessment

LCAs are used to promote sustainability across sectors and industries, from energy and manufacturing to agriculture, transportation, and others. They are also instrumental tools in organizations’ bids to achieve sustainable development goals.


Ultimately, they constitute a holistic approach that provides a comprehensive understanding of the sustainability performance of a product, process, or system. It helps decision-makers identify trade-offs between environmental, economic, and social impacts and make informed choices that promote sustainable development.


The main challenges and limitations of LCAs are linked to the interpretation of their results. For instance, data quality and availability across all stages of a product’s life cycle may impact the results of LCAs. Additionally, the complexity of methodologies like environmental life cycle assessment (LCA), life cycle costing (LCC), and social life cycle assessment (S-LCA) may create differences in data sources and qualities. Subjectivity, value judgments, system complexities and scales, and communication of results to stakeholders may also pose unique challenges.


LCAs vs. Other Sustainability Metrics

Sustainability is a multifaceted concept, and various tools and metrics aim to measure and improve it. LCAs, while widely regarded, differ significantly from other sustainability software in three key aspects:


Scope

Unlike many sustainability tools that focus on specific issues such as carbon emissions or human rights, LCAs take a comprehensive approach. They scrutinize a product’s environmental impact across its entire life cycle, from raw material extraction to disposal.


Methodology

LCAs adhere to internationally recognized standards, employing scientific methods to assess environmental impact. Conversely, the abundance of sustainability tools available introduces variability in methodologies, making comparisons challenging.


Transparency

LCAs stand out for providing transparent and credible communication of a product’s environmental impact. In contrast, some sustainability tools may lack the necessary transparency, hindering stakeholders’ ability to make accurate assessments.


Decoding the Steps: What Goes into an LCA?

Performing an LCA involves a meticulous process and several life cycle assessment steps, divided into four main stages:


1. Goal and Scope Definition

Establishing the purpose, system boundaries, and functional unit of the study enables a clear understanding of the assessed aspects of the life cycle. In order for a product’s impacts to be sufficiently assessed, the purpose and scope of an LCA need to be defined. On top of that, the nature of the product or process being assessed needs to be evaluated. It’s crucial to understand the relevant life cycle stages and the pertinent impact categories.


2. Inventory Analysis

This involves compiling a detailed inventory of inputs and outputs associated with the product, that creates a visual representation of the product’s life cycle. This analysis should factor in raw material and resource extraction, product production, shipping, end use, maintenance, and end-of-life disposal or treatment.


3. Impact Assessment

This is the evaluation of environmental impacts using established categories, such as climate change and eutrophication. These are based on the inputs and outputs identified in the inventory analysis. An environmental life cycle assessment (LCA), life cycle costing (LCC), and social life cycle assessment (S-LCA) should be conducted to quantify impacts and costs across relevant categories.


4. Interpretation:

This step involves the analsis and interpretation of results, considering different scenarios, and drawing conclusions about the environmental performance of the product or process. Data should be interpreted in a way that identifies key impacts, gauges trade-offs between various impact categories, and assesses the total sustainability performance of the product in question.


Acknowledging Variability: No Two LCAs Are Alike

One must recognize that no two LCAs are precisely the same. The variability arises from differences in software, data sources, and life cycle assessment methodology. Various software tools have distinct databases and acquisition methods, leading to slight variations in results. Even if an LCA is performed on the exact same product with the exact same functional unit, the results will be slightly different using various softwares. Therefore, caution must be exercised when comparing LCAs conducted using different tools, scopes, and functional units.


Limitations within LCA

The application of LCAs is not without its challenges and limitations. Let’s look closely at each one and have a better understanding of the constraints within LCA methodologies:


Modeling

An LCA is a model of a product’s lifecycle and models operate on well-founded assumptions. For example, let’s take the life cycle of a box of paper clips. When we get to the transportation portion of the model, we will have to make an assumption that depicts the transportation distance of an average box of paper clips. This means that a real-life box that is shipped a longer or shorter distance than the average, will have a slightly different environmental impact compared to the published model. In this way, the models we use in LCA can be considered excellent representations of an average product’s life cycle, but will not be completely accurate in every scenario.


Data Limitations

One of the largest limitations within LCAs is data availability. Often, a specific component of a product is not available in the datasets provided by the chosen LCA software. While the optimum option would be to gather primary data and create the missing dataset from scratch, this is usually outside of the budget or time constraints of the project. In this case, a substitution must be made.


Peer Reviewed vs. Non-Peer Reviewed

The peer review process is widely regarded as the gold standard for academic research. According to ISO 14040, comparative LCAs (those that make comparative statements between two or more product systems) must be peer-reviewed. However, non-comparative LCAs do not require peer review.


A non-peer reviewed LCA is still incredibly valuable to understanding the environmental impacts of a product. However, the lack of peer review process leaves models and assumptions unchecked, opening the door for misinterpretation and sometimes even greenwashing. Just as we differentiate between the context of a news article versus an opinion piece, it is imperative that we, as judicious consumers, understand the review process of each LCA we consume.


By creating a deeper understanding of the process and limitations of LCAs, we can more appropriately understand their positive impacts. This helps to foster a system in which LCAs can be a cornerstone of conscious production.


Why LCAs Remain Invaluable Despite Limitations

Despite their limitations and challenges, LCAs remain invaluable. Here’s a look at why they’re such a relevant tool.


Banishes Greenwashing

LCAs serve as a potent weapon against greenwashing, offering a verifiable, data-driven look at the true environmental impacts of a product. They provide a complete understanding of the full social, environmental, and economic impacts of a product or system across its entire life cycle. This helps in determining whether a product or system is truly sustainable and reveals both direct and indirect impacts that could otherwise be overlooked.


Universal Standard

LCAs adhere to ISO 14040 standards, providing a standardized methodology that enables consumers and stakeholders to compare the environmental performance of different products accurately. LCAs can establish benchmarks for sustainability comparisons to identify essential areas for industry-wide improvement.


Identifying Hotspots

LCAs help identify critical environmental hotspots, guiding businesses in focusing their sustainability efforts on stages with the most significant impact. Quantitative data-driven insights enable a deeper and more accurate overview of hotspots, helping to enhance existing sustainability initiatives.


Assessing Trade-Offs:

By allowing manufacturers to assess trade-offs between different environmental impacts, LCAs empower informed decision-making to optimize product sustainability. These assessments play an important role in promoting sustainable development while maintaining a high degree of operational transparency.


Importance of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) in Packaging Solutions

LCAs are vital tools for making informed packaging choices that reduce social, environmental, and economic impacts. A life cycle assessment provides a holistic view of the sustainability implications of various packaging solutions. This allows businesses to minimize their carbon emissions and carbon footprints, reduce waste production, promote sustainable practices, and choose the most cost-effective packaging options for their needs.


How Cruz Foam Checks All the Boxes of LCAs

Cruz Foam successfully fulfills all the criteria of LCAs – environmental, social, and economic alike, exemplifying their comprehensive value.


Environmental

Our ASTM-certified compostable packaging is manufactured using existing materials and equipment, promoting a seamless transition towards sustainable material use. Our products use waste from the global food production industry to remove waste from landfill, and biodegrade into a byproduct very close in quality to organic food waste.


Social

We produce our foam in-region, close to our customers. This reduces the need to ship our products and work with our customers’ current supply chain partners.


Economic

We use cost-effective feedstocks and existing materials during manufacturing to keep our solutions affordable. Our use of existing materials and facilities also saves businesses vast sums of capital and operating expenses.


Ensure Sustainability with Cruz Foam

In the intricate world of sustainability assessments, LCAs serve as both a beacon and a compass. Acknowledging the limitations and variability within LCAs is essential for informed decision-making. As businesses continue to navigate the complexities of environmental impact assessments, the transparency, credibility, and comprehensive nature of LCAs make them indispensable tools for unraveling the complexities of product sustainability.


Cruz Foam’s packaging solutions align perfectly with LCA metrics and provide truly sustainable packaging products for a wide range of industries and sectors. Contact our team today to learn more about Cruz Cool™, Cruz Pack™, Cruz Wrap™, and Cruz Cush™.


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