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What is lifecycle assessment?

12 October 2016

Lifecycle assessment has been around for a long time but since the revision of ISO 14001 (that you can read about here), lifecycle assessment has become more prominent.  Clause 6.1.2 of ISO 14001:2015 states “…the organisation shall determine the environmental aspects of its activities, products and services that it can control and those that it can influence, and their associated environmental impacts, considering a lifecycle perspective”.  But what does that mean?  This weeks blog will take a look.

What is lifecycle assessment?

ISO 14001 defines lifecycle as “consecutive and interlinked stages of a product (or service) system, from raw material acquisition of generation from natural resources to final disposal”.  It is sometimes known as the cradle to grave concept and looks at the environmental impacts at each stage of a product or services life.  It goes all the way back to where the raw materials came from to how a product would be disposed of (or recycled) at end of life and will consider everything in between such as manufacture and customer use.

What is lifecycle assessment used for?

There are a number of reasons you might carry out a lifecycle assessment.  One reason is for comparison.  When making a product or service selection, there are many things that you will consider, including environmental performance.  By understanding the environmental impacts, you can decide which would be the most environmentally friendly from a whole life point of view.  Another reason might be to identify areas for improvement.  As you identify the environmental impacts at each stage of your product or services life, you may find areas that you can address to improve your environmental performance.

How do I carry out a lifecycle assessment?

Due to the variety of products and services there are out there, there is no formal methodology that can be adopted for lifecycle assessment.  However, there are common things that you should be doing and ISO 14040 does give guidance on how to carry out an assessment.  The first step is to define the scope and boundaries of your assessment.  This will be informed by the aims of your assessment.  You must be very clear about why you are carrying out a lifecycle assessment and what you want to cover and what you don’t want to cover.

The next step is inventory analysis.  This will identify all of the inputs and outputs to the system you have defined in your scope.  You should include energy and raw materials, all emissions to air and water, solid wastes, by-products and any other inputs or outputs unique to your product or service.  Next, you will need to identify the impacts from everything you found in your inventory analysis.  The final step (and possibly the most important), is interpretation of the results.  How you interpret your findings will depend on the purpose of carrying out a lifecycle assessment but can include opportunity identification at various stages during the lifecycle.

With the update to ISO 14001, lifecycle assessment has become much more prominent.  The aim of lifecycle assessment is to provide insight into the overall environmental performance of a product or service rather than looking at one stage, for example, the finished product.  This gives consumers much more information about what would be the most environmentally friendly choice, but also gives manufacturers and service providers opportunity to identify improvements that could save money and build an organisations reputation.

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