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Beginner's Guide: How To Do An LCA For FREE, Life Cycle Assessment Tools And Data

By Alex Loijos

Embedding sustainability intelligence into business decision-making is not only a forward-thinking strategy that improves humankind's relationship to the environment, but is a strategy to ensure a business's viability in today's rapidly evolving landscape. In this new "environment," businesses have a leg up if they understand how their operations and supply chain relationships hurt and help the planet.

Such intelligence can augment decisions about procurement, marketing, design, supplier and customer relationships, and in the office. These decisions can include sourcing materials that reduce upstream impacts on the environment, to marketing environmental performance of your services, or even having the credibility to be able to influence policy that affects your industry. But such "sustainability intelligence" is not easy to come by, and can involve hiring costly consultants who have the data and know the methodologies and standards.

But the fact that the environmental consultants' skills are cryptic and expensive becomes a barrier to helping businesses infuse this intelligence into their everyday decisions, and ultimately becomes a barrier to a more sustainable future. I would therefore like to share some of what I have learned as a consultant, so that you can appreciate that my craft does not need to be rocket science, and can take small steps that have a large impact, at a very low cost, and that can even be fun!

In the remainder of this article I will cover the following three areas that will help you conduct a low cost life cycle assessment.

  • 1. Strategize: The most important part of this whole process is to make sure you are asking a strategically important question. Something that will benefit your business in the long term and not simply result in a lot of wasted time doing analysis. This means planning a study in an iterative fashion and taking steady action, so that insight can be gained along the way.
  • 2. Measure: Once we've defined an important, strategic question, how do we go about answering that question and measuring the associated impacts? I will show you how doing an LCA can actually be very cheap, and even free of cost!
  • 3. Integrate: Finally I present a list of free tools and free, quality data sources that will provide a resource to integrate life cycle thinking into your organization.

STRATEGIZE: Ask the right question

Before embarking on the quest for the sustainability grail, the most important first step is to make sure your objectives are clear. This not only dictates exactly what kind of information is collected and what analysis is to be performed, but it can also prevent a lot of wasted time along with ensuring that your time and money are spent efficiently.

Exactly why does your company wish to understand their environmental impacts in greater depth? Here are some common motivations, all which involve very different approaches.

  • To reduce emissions and meet overarching corporate CSR goals
  • To appeal to customers with a green thumb, and make claims about product environmental performance
  • Eco-design during the product development stage
  • To achieve certain certifications, such as Environmental Product Declarations for LEED v4, PAS 2050 certification, Greenhouse gas protocol and many more
  • To comply with government regulations or industry association policies
  • To mitigate supply chain risks associated with regional price volatility or resource depletion
  • Seeking cost savings by reducing energy usage, waste, and pollution, which all directly affect the bottom line
  • A bit of all of the above options, which do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This stage is very strategic in the traditional business sense, and can benefit from performing a critical competitor analysis, as well as by engaging investors, policy liaisons, financial planning and upper management in the conversation. Understanding the profitability benefits in dollars of a robust environmental strategy is what is turning yesterday's "British Petroleum" into "Beyond Petroleum." This corporate strategy must all occur before a single carbon emission factor is even sought out, or the thought of conducting a "hot spot analysis" occurs.

The benefits of a strong sustainability strategy create stronger ties between businesses (B2B), and between businesses and consumers (B2C), and naturally require companies to look beyond their own operations and into their upstream and downstream supply chains. It becomes incredibly important at this stage to identify key stakeholders that your sustainability goals will impact. Obtaining and utilizing sustainability intelligence also requires a quantified approach so that a company can measure their improvement over time, credibly make environmental claims, or identify opportunities for eco-friendly procurement, eco-design, etc. This is because, if you can't measure it, then you can't rightly change it.

The fact that a sustainability strategy involves relationships outside of your business, as well as a quantified approach, often invokes applying Life Cycle Analysis or LCA. Life cycle assessment is the most credible way to measure a product or business's true impacts, since it includes the entire chain of stakeholders involved in a given business activity, enabling credible marketing, comparison between alternatives, finding emissions hot spots, and ultimately measuring emissions reduction over time.

MEASURE: Free (or very cheap) life cycle assessment

OK, so I know that I want to analyze one of our products and compare it to a new design in order to see the "numbers" and quantify the benefits of this change. Or perhaps I know I want to look at my whole factory and identify lowest hanging fruit for emissions reduction, as well as pinpoint areas where I can save money from inefficiency. Now I know my focus in terms of business areas, products, and relevant stakeholders, so how do I begin to quantify these impacts?

Life cycle assessment can be quite expensive, costing up to $50,000 or more per product. The largest cost associated with conducting an LCA lies in the data collection and calculation, and is identified by LCA practitioners in four countries as the most difficult part of doing an LCA.

Figure 1 - Methodological problems of doing an LCA (relative shares in % of LCA-using companies in each country [source: P Frankl, F Rubrik, "Life Cycle Assessment in Industry and Business." Springer 2000.]. CH: Switzerland; D: Germany; I: Italy; S: Sweden.

This is the strategic transition into the second stage of how we work with clients, during the 'Measure' phase, by iteratively taking baby steps and going in detail only as necessary. Firstly, let's do an example "screening" level calculation that will give us some initial insight into an example product's life cycle, without having to do an extensive study. Then, in the following section I will point you to a wealth of data sources that will help you reach your objectives while also saving you tremendous amounts of time and money doing an LCA.

There are two ways I recommend doing a screening level assessment. If you have already selected a product of focus, then please take advantage of the Free LCA tool and tutorial linked below. If you have not, then you can obtain a screening analysis for all products of an organization using only two pieces of data through our LinkCycle tool. While it does not enable a full life cycle profile, you can determine the local (i.e. Scope 1 and 2) impacts of all products very easily. This reveals those products which have the most impact within the boundaries of the organization, which make for a great way for a company to reduce its own impacts and save on costs (such as energy, water, and waste costs).

Now that you have selected a product, conduct a screening LCA with our Free LCA tool and tutorial. Follow the instructions inside and play with putting together your own life cycle assessment! As a way of spreading the love, send a tweet to get free access. (We understand many of our readers don't use Twitter, so we include a link directly to the tool here, and request that if you find this article and tool useful, you please share the article with your colleagues, or use one of the social buttons at the bottom of this article)

INTEGRATE: Free software tools and databases that can become a part of your everyday sustainability strategy

PART 1: Tools

EIO-LCA and CEDA

Carnegie Mellon's EIO-LCA tool is free for public and academic use, but requires a license for professional use. It can be accessed at http://www.eiolca.net . The largest benefit of this tool is that you can appreciate and compare many different environmental impacts from greenhouse gases to toxic releases, energy, and water withdrawals in only a matter of seconds for a variety of products. Access the tool by clicking on "USE THE TOOL" in the left menu bar. Follow the five steps on the page, and you are given the impact per dollar of the product, in the chosen sector, for the chosen environmental impact. Or follow this more in-depth tutorial.

Another great input-output database is CEDA, which is free for academic users as well. CEDA undergoes more frequent updates, with the most recent in July 2012.

These tools both use economic input-output tables to show the impact on the environment for every dollar of economic activity in a given industrial sector, as well as all the indirect impacts occurring in the remaining sectors. So one can instantly see that $1 million of Fruit farming induces on average in the economy $45,000 of Fertilizer purchases, which is indirectly responsible for 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions from Fruit farming. This can offer insight into the benefits a company might get if they switch away from chemical fertilizers in order to improve their practice compared to the market average. The primary downside of input-output LCA is that it only provides enough granularity to analyze at the sector level, so the accuracy suffers since many different types of products are lumped into the same sector. For example, apple farming and grape farming have different fertilizer needs, but are both included in the "Fruit farming" sector.

EconomyMap

Economy Map is another great tool which is available for free. It utilizes CEDA data to provide visualization of the same economic activity and indirect environmental impacts. It provides a way to dynamically explore and understand the sources and flow of goods, services, and environmental impacts among major industrial sectors. Economy Map is intended as a resource for public interest advocates and policymakers, and also as an educational resource for broader audiences.

Figure 2. One of the many dynamically-rendered visualizations in EconomyMap. [Source: economymap.org]

OpenLCA

The OpenLCA software is a free tool produced by GreenDeltaTC GmbH, supported by several sustainability-leading organizations. Their goal is to "Design and build a fast, reliable, high-performance, modular framework for sustainability assessment & life cycle modeling." Download is free at http://www.openlca.org, and manuals and other knowledge to enable learning the software are also available.

Fast footprinting methods

A "fast footprint methodology" has helped simplify the process by generating approximate emission factors for the greenhouse gases of products, which holds promise for the future. Please see "Fast Carbon Footprinting for Large Product Portfolios" by Meinrenken, et al.

$1k LCA

While it is not totally free, the cheapest cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment on the market can be obtained for $1000 for any product. This serves as a screening assessment as described above, and a platform to begin searching for the low hanging fruit and how an LCA can integrate into an organization operationally: whether for strategic emissions reduction, product development with eco-design embedded in the process, or for identification of cost savings and revenue opportunities associated with your product's environmental performance.

PART 2: Data

Free life cycle inventory (LCI) databases

The European Life Cycle Data Network or ELCD database is one of the most comprehensive European databases of life cycle inventories for: major materials, energy sources, transportation, and waste management. The data are available free of charge, without access or use restrictions, and are in line with ISO 14040/44 guidelines.

The World Resources Institute provide many tools and data to help comply with their Greenhouse Gas Protocol. There are sector-specific toolsets including dynamic Excel spreadsheets along with documents guiding the use of each. Find them here.

The University of Bath has constructed ICE a comprehensive embodied energy and embodied carbon database for 34 major material groups, with careful attention paid to virgin or recycled materials, as well as product sub-types. The full pdf here.

Since the effort was launched in 2001, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory has produced the US Life Cycle Inventory a free life cycle inventory database for hundreds of materials, industrial processes, transportation, and waste management activities.

Emission Factors

AskAMEE - Provides a wealth of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) emission factors using a smart search engine that agglomerates many different well-documented sources of data.

EPA's Waste Reduction Model (WARM) - EPA created the Waste Reduction Model (WARM) to help solid waste planners and organizations track and voluntarily report greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions from several different waste management practices. Web based and Excel spreadsheet calculators available.

Reducing the cost of data collection

Our tool instantly breaks down readily available data into a per-product footprint calculation. This avoids having to run around collecting data from different machinery and processes, a process which can take months--saving your data collection time and costs by >90%. It also avoids using inaccurate estimates or third-party data which isn't representative of your actual production process. Obtain very accurate data for the footprint of all production lines simultaneously, by having to collect only two pieces of readily available data.

Conclusion

While LCA can be an expensive method, especially when conducting full-blown, peer-reviewed, and certification-compliant studies - it does not have to be expensive. To the contrary, the largest benefits of LCA come at the lowest cost, and a screening-level LCA combined with a business-minded, strategic approach can enable these benefits to be obtained very cheaply or even for free. We hope that this article gives you some toys such that you can begin to play with the powerful life cycle framework, and begin to explore a way to do things more sustainably such that it makes good business sense as well.

Download the Free LCA Tool and Step-by-step tutorial here, and as your way of saying thanks, send a tweet for us for access: For those of you that don't tweet, here is a direct link to the tool. We request that if you find this article and tool useful, you please share the article with your colleagues, or use one of the social buttons below.