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Demystifying Life Cycle Assessments

13th Mar 2024 - 3 min read
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Bringing some much needed clarity to the complexities of LCAs

A guide to understanding the environmental impact of your products and packaging

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and Life Cycle Impact Assessments (LCIAs) are becoming indispensable measures and data sources for businesses seeking to understand and reduce the environmental impact of their products and packaging. Understanding your baseline impact enables you to prioritise actions to reduce your environmental impact.

Life Cycle Impact Assessments (LCIAs) provide insight beyond data, providing clients with a list of priorities to maximise and reduce product or packaging impact.

Immediate impact might come from changing the origin of manufacturing to reduce transport distances or from removing unnecessary primary or secondary materials—often part of a legacy of how things are done! Simple changes, informed by data and insights.

EPR on the Horizon

With international regulations trending towards Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), businesses will need to understand and measure anything they put into the world for consumers to buy or use. With companies likely to be taxed on their specific impact on people and planet, there will need to be an industry-wide shift to life cycle thinking.

Mitigating this cost risk will become 'standard' for businesses. Focusing on circular economy initiatives, the recycled content of materials at ever-increasing inclusion rates, and natural materials that return to nature will support compliance. Exceeding these expectations could well bring positives to your tax returns. Net contributors will be rewarded, with consumers being your first win!

However, it is also crucial for business owners to be aware that impact assessment results (governed by the rigorous guidelines of ISO 14040) are meant more as directional guidance rather than definitive comparisons between competitive products, especially without adequate context and interpretation.

Iterating the process, benchmarking against alternatives and competitors, and introducing domestic and global regulation context enables you to build your sustainability vision and set out clear objectives with a high level of confidence; work with Phantm to support your process.

Accuracy and Relevance

The accuracy of a Life Cycle Assessment report depends significantly on the scope, assumptions, boundary conditions, and data sources documented in the report. As a business owner, scrutinising these elements can help ensure the report's relevance and applicability to your specific situation. For example, the environmental impact calculated for packaging depends on the accuracy of the number of primary, secondary, and tertiary packages, as determined by the initial scope and assumptions as set out in the Bill of Materials (BOM).

As a basic guide to help businesses better understand any LCA study, we recommend paying close attention to the key phases and categories we have laid out below.

The Key Phases of Product Life Cycle Analysis

Material Phase

This phase evaluates the environmental footprint from the extraction and processing of raw materials. Understanding the source and sustainability of the materials used in your products is crucial.

Manufacturing Phase

The focus here is on the environmental impact of your manufacturing process or conversion procedures. This phase highlights the importance of efficient, eco-friendly manufacturing techniques.

Transportation Phase

This phase assesses the impact based on the mode of transportation and distances travelled. It underscores the need to optimise logistics to minimise carbon emissions.

End of Life

This critical phase considers the disposal, recycling, or reuse of the product and packaging, emphasising the importance of designing for recyclability, a circular economy, and reduced waste.

Use Phase

If applicable, this includes the environmental impact during the product's useful life, particularly relevant for products that consume resources, like energy or water, during use.

Key Impact Categories we focus on

Global Warming Potential (GWP)

Look for the total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) reported in CO2 equivalents. This indicates a product's carbon footprint and a clear picture of the product's contribution to climate change over a 100-year timeframe.

Fossil Fuel Use

Understanding the total quantity of fossil fuel consumed throughout the product's life cycle can help identify areas for reducing energy consumption and transitioning to renewable energy sources.

Water Consumption

This indicator provides insight into the product's water footprint, which is crucial in assessing sustainability in water-scarce regions. The AWARE method used for calculation highlights the potential impact on local water resources.

Understanding the Limits of LCA Methodology

An LCA report is a powerful tool for business owners committed to reducing their products and/or packaging environmental impact and GHG emissions.

Understanding these phases and impact categories makes reading a life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) report more meaningful.

For instance, Phantm's LCA reports provide business owners with data relating to the environmental footprint of their products and packaging. More importantly, Phantm's clients find our insights invaluable, as well as communicating challenges in plain English, setting out potential solutions, validating internal thinking, and presenting unforeseen new challenges!

Regardless, our reports provide teams with the confidence to move forward and make better-informed decisions.

"Every conversation with Phantm brought clarity to the otherwise very murky space of impact and sustainability"

– Suzie, Head of Sustainability, Market Lane Coffee.

LCAs and LCIAs have their limitations. Not all environmental impacts may be fully quantifiable, and the data used represents industry averages rather than specific instances.

Businesses can make more informed decisions that align with environmental sustainability goals by focusing on the detailed phases of the product lifecycle, understanding the key impact categories, and critically evaluating the assumptions and data sources.

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Filed under: Data & Analysis

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