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Eco-LCA™ – Life Cycle Assessment with Full Ecological Accounting

Innovation is essential for genuine progress in sustainable development. But credible tools are needed to verify the “sustainability” of new products, processes, and technologies. Specifically, companies need to understand the energy, emissions, resource use, and cost trade-offs over the full life cycle of a product or service, from “cradle to cradle”. The scope of analysis may include resource extraction, processing, manufacturing, logistics, service, remanufacturing, and end-of-life resource recovery.

Conventional life cycle assessment (LCA), based on ISO 14000 guidelines, is costly and time-intensivedue to the need for accurate, process-specific data. Also, conventional LCA requires setting a boundary that may omit important processes. Alternative approaches have emerged that are more comprehensive, more streamlined, and less fine-grain than conventional LCA. These macro-scale methods use aggregate input-output data to model the entire economy from a top-down perspective, and provide a useful complement to detailed, bottom-up LCA. In particular, since streamlined LCA requires only basic data about resource inputs, it is helpful in assessing new products when emissions data are not yet available.

Another shortcoming of conventional LCA is lack of attention to natural capital. For example, use of agricultural wastes as a renewable energy source (e.g., for biofuels) can hurt agricultural productivity by reducing the resilience of soil ecosystems. Ecosystem products and services are the foundation of our economy, but are excluded from typical energy and emissions accounting. Ecological product flows include sand, wood, grass, metals, and minerals, while ecological services include water, wind, tides, soil, and pollination. An understanding of threats to these resources is essential for sustainable development.

After years of investigation, Ohio State scientists have devised a rigorous method to quantify the lifecycle resource consumption of industrial products and processes, including “embedded” natural capital. Simply put, this approach extends LCA back to the cradle, providing a full accounting of how economic activities utilize ecosystem products and services. Eco-LCA™ is now available in the form of a webbased software package, the first tool that enables macro-scale LCA including natural capital. Results are available for 488 industrial sectors of the U.S. economy, and the tool has been applied in a variety of industries, ranging from electric power to consumer products. Eco-LCA™ is capable of analyzing systems at any scale, from a unit process to a supply chain to the entire economy. For example, the figure below illustrates the use of Eco-LCA™ to assess of the relative ecological impacts of consumer expenditures for an average U.S. family renting their home, based on 2006 census data.

How Companies Can Use Eco-LCA™ to Support Business Decisions

Life cycle thinking is relevant to almost all business processes, from strategic planning to facility
maintenance. The streamlined computational structure of Eco-LCA™ enables users to apply it repeatedly and test a variety of different business scenarios and assumptions. Thus, it can be used as a rapid screening tool to determine the merits of conducting a detailed LCA. The following are examples of how OSU has applied life cycle assessment to provide information for business and policy decisions:

New product development
Design teams can benefit from feedback about the life cycle implications of proposed designs. For example, OSU compared vapor-grown Carbon Nano-Fibers (CNFs) to traditional materials such as aluminum, steel and polypropylene for auto body panels. The results indicate significantly higher life cycle energy use and environmental impacts of CNFs.

Energy analysis
Concerns over energy costs and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have heightened the importance of LCA focused on energy use and GHG “footprints”. For example, OSU conducted a landmark study comparing biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel to fossil-based fuels. The results indicate the best “return on energy invested” for cellulosic ethanol derived from poplar and corn stover. While biofuels will reduce GHGs within the U.S., most other emissions will increase, and biofuels are more resource-intensive in terms of water, land, sand, stone, minerals, and even coal (see below).

Supplier management
Increased outsourcing and globalization raise the importance of monitoring supplier practices, including environmental performance. Eco-LCA™ can be used as a screening tool for “pareto” analysis of purchased products and services. For example, OSU has identified the top ten supplier sectors contributing to the life cycle GHG emissions footprint for soft drink manufacturing.

Critical resource planning
The continuity of global operations is dependent on the availability of key resources, including ecological products and services. To identify potential vulnerabilities, OSU has developed LCA-based indicators that can be applied to a company’s global supply chain; for example, the “embedded water” index can highlight water-intensive operations in drought-prone regions.

Strategic market analysis
In an age of turbulence, markets will fluctuate due to changes in the cost and availability of natural resources. For an equipment manufacturer, OSU analyzed the dependency of its top customer sectors on threatened ecosystem services, including water, wood, nutrient cycling.

Product benefit claims
Increasingly, customers are seeking information about the environmental life cycle characteristics of products. Eco-LCA™ can be used in a rapid, iterative mode to explore potential product claims and to test competitor’s claims. Then it can be applied in a detailed LCA to develop credible, scientific comparisons that account for the full spectrum of economic and ecological impacts