Note: This post was written by SEI staff, Aida Sefic Williams.
The latest segment of the LCA series will focus on the advantages and disadvantages of LCAs. While I am a proponent of life cycle analyzes, I do understand that they do come with their sets of complications and limitations, and I do think one needs to understand the complete LCA picture before taking their stand for or against LCAs.
- LCAs allow for the analysis of all steps within the life cycle of a product or process. This is beneficial, since it provides the analyst with a clearer picture of the environmental damage created by the product in question. This will allow the analysis to work with designers and engineers to find better ways to design or manufacture a product in order to decrease certain environmental aspects.
- LCAs offer valuable quantitative comparisons. When a company decides, for example, to start using Material B, instead of Material A in a product, an LCA can be a very useful tool. If one completes an LCA and finds out that using Material A produces 10kg of CO2, completing an equivalent LCA when using Material B can show that Material B only emits 1.5 kg of CO2. Comparison LCAs are very effective, because they offer a quantitative comparison of two different products or processes and effectively show that one material, for example, is better than another alternative. Another advantage is that this comparison is based on actual emissions and environmental damages, rather than speculations and opinions.
- LCAs can serve as an effective marketing tool when used appropriately. Most companies have been doing LCAs for long periods of time, but the average consumer is not aware of this information because the LCA reports are not published to the public. Apple, however, has started using their LCA reports as an effective marketing tool. They released broad LCA data of their products. This information tells the consumer a few things: (a) If the consumer is concerned about the environment and wants to minimize his/her pollution, they may opt for the Apple product because they know that the company shares its information and is making strides to decrease their negative environmental impacts. (b) This information may make a consumer ask questions such as: Do other computer manufacturers perform LCAs? How do their emissions compare to Apple’s? Why do they not publish their data? Do they have something to hide? Apple’s strategy of publishing their data has therefore served as an effective marketing tool geared toward environmentally conscious consumers.
- LCAs are currently becoming a hot button issue in industry and regulatory organizations alike. In order to receive the Gold award from EPEAT, a computer must meet 75% of the optional criteria, one of which is the completion of an LCA. In addition, President Obama just signed an executive order for federal agencies, and if similar legislation is passed for non-government agencies, a company’s LCA data can be useful in showing compliance and with federal rules, as well as a company’s steps to go above and beyond required legislation. In addition, an LCA can also be used to show the true environmental advantage one company may have over another, therefore encouraging companies to compete on the basis of environmental contributions, rather than on price and performance alone.
- Completing a full life cycle analysis on complicated products is much easier said than done. When looking at the LCA of a computer, one must consider the hundreds or parts that go into a computer, the location of the product (the larger your scope, the more complicated the LCA), the multitude of manufacturers and processors involved in creating a single computer, etc. Creating LCAs for less complicated products is much easier than completing them for more complicated products, since there is a much smaller amount of sub-systems and components that make up the larger product.
- In order to complete a full LCA, data is necessary. More importantly, good current, relative data is necessary. Unfortunately, obtaining data can be a daunting task. Oftentimes, companies are not willing to provide their data to outside analysts, because such data is considered proprietary information. When faced with this problem, an analyst always has the option of using averaged, available data from databases such as ecoInvent. Using widely-available data or software programs is more convenient than dealing with the legalities associated with data coming from large corporations. The drawback, however, is that one does not know where this data comes from, how relevant it is to a specific area or industry, and how old the data is.
- LCAs, depending on the specific product or process, can be VERY time intensive. Once again, the more complicated the product/system, the more complicated and time-intensive the LCA. Performing the LCA of a car or computer will take much more time (and money) than the LCA of a bottled soft drink. The importance of time-sensitivity is more important in the electronics industry, where constant technological advances are responsible for new computer and electronics models ever few months. Since a complete LCA of a computer can take up to 2 years, by the time the LCA report is completed, that particular computer is already considered to be obsolete and a newer and better computer is already in mass production. For example, I purchased a computer 2 years ago with all the standard hard- and software that came with a Dell laptop. If I wanted to purchase a “standard” laptop from Dell today, most of the hardware would be a little faster, better, etc. In addition, I would also wrestle with the idea of updating to Windows 7 instead of Vista. Although new computer models are released into production frequently, the manufacturing and design process does not change drastically between the models. Therefore, an LCA, although it may taking an older computer model into account, will usually be relevant to a newer model, since there is a lot of overlap in the design, makeup, manufacture, use, and disposal of the product.
- A current lack of global standards is a very important disadvantage. Standards about LCA requirements vary across countries. The United States only uses LCAs as an optional recommendation. The EU, however, offers more LCA guidance and more stringent rules of how to complete a successful LCA. Underdeveloped countries do not require LCAs and may not place much emphasis on environmental responsibilities, as evidenced by the amount of illegal e-waste dumping that occurs in China, Hong Kong, India, and smaller African countries. The global discrepancies often also result in LCA data discrepancies for the associated countries. For example, the EU has much more data collected with regards to various environmental factors, as opposed to underdeveloped countries as China. This problem becomes more prevalent when one considers that many electronics are built in less developed countries such as these. Therefore, completing LCAs in underdeveloped countries and adjusting the processes and product designs accordingly will ultimately have a larger global environmental impact.