Life cycle assessments – what is a product’s full impact?

This article is available in Bulgarian.

The impact of various products on the environment is a theme that most modern people are well acquainted with – we are constantly bombarded with news about carbon emissions, air pollution, resource depletion and other similar topics. Human activity undoubtedly influences the environment in various ways, which leads to the question of which influence is the most important. The Cola-Cola Company asked themselves this question in the distant 1969, which led to the creation of the first life cycle assessment (LCA) in the world.


It’s no accident that the first LCA was created back then – the 60’s marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, outlined the harmful effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment. Another theme that gained popularity in the 60’s was the waste produced by single-use packaging. Friends of the Earth (one of the largest environmental organizations today) gained worldwide recognition when they organized a protest in which they “returned” a pile of 1500 trashed bottles to the central office of Cadbury Schweppes.  

This led The Coca-Cola Company to research the effects of various types of packaging on the environment – they wanted to find out if single use plastic bottles or glass bottles were the best option. Even back then the company realized that the answer is not at all trivial because they knew that the effects of packages on the environment were not simply a matter of their production.

This was the beginning of product life cycle assessments. Let’s see what the process looks like.

The anatomy of life cycle assessments

The term “life cycle” is relatively intuitive – it includes not only the product manufacturing process, but also the pathway of the materials that go into the product, starting all the way at their extraction. If relevant, the use of the product over its lifetime is followed to its conclusion – when it goes out of use through recycling, burning, reuse or disposal. 

Today LCAs are а standardized process carried out according to standards ISO 14040 and 14044 (and their Bulgarian counterparts). The most key aspects of life cycle assessments have not changed significantly since the 60’s.

According to the ISO standards, the first step of a proper LCA is to clearly define the goal and the scope of the research. In the example above the goal of the assessment was to compare several types of drink packages and the scope was the entire life cycle of the product (also known as “cradle-to-grave”).   

Various possibilities for the scope of a life cycle. The choice of scope should always meet the needs of the study in question.

The second step is to collect data for the life cycle of the product, which includes the input and output material and energy flows. In studies with a cradle-to-gate scope these flows are basically the “recipe” for the creation of the product while studies with a cradle-to-grave scope include the entire life cycle of the product, which includes things like the logistics of collecting Multi-use packages and the water for cleaning them.

This step of the LCA process is often seen as very time and labor intensive but this isn’t necessarily the case. Defining the scope of the LCA study (the first step) includes the process of defining the cut-off criteria – the study includes only those material and energy flows that are significant for the manufacturing process. Our experience as consultants shows that the gathering of data on the manufacturing process of the product more or less goes as planned – the process is well known to companies. Gathering data outside the manufacturing process is more difficult but thankfully there are special LCA databases, that we at denkstatt are familiar with – these databases make the process of formulating a holistic life cycle picture of a product much easier on the part of companies. 

The third step is the analysis of the product’s effects. The idea of protecting nature comes into play at this point – the most significant effects are studied using specialized methodologies and databases.

First line: the main types of environmental effects looked at in LCAs

Second line: some particular effects that are part of the assessment of the items in the first line

The environmental effects that we choose to measure (and the relevant methodologies that we employ) are dictated by the goals and scope of the study. An LCA can be focused on a single theme (i.e. use of energy or water) or it can cover a wider scope of themes (when the products have multiple effects) depending on the needs of the company. The consultant’s work is to fulfill the needs of their client company by showing them, in measurable terms, the effects of the life cycle of their product on the environment.

Of course, once complete, the analysis is followed by an interpretation!

How can a product life cycle assessment be useful?

Taking into account the key steps and key impacts, the life cycle assessment of a product gives us a complete picture of its effect on the environment. The greatest strength of this approach is its holistic coverage, which can help us to come to some unintuitive conclusions.

The experience of the global trade industry with food packaging has led to one such example. Consumers tend to consider plastic packaging for meat and other fresh products as “harmful” and “unnecessary”. However, LCA studies have shown that plastic packages in these cases constitute a net benefit for the environment because they prevent food spoilage, which leads to greater environmental harm than the waste from the packages themselves. When we look at the issue holistically and in the context of the product’s full life cycle, we see that fresh foods that are packaged are better for the environment because they slow down the rate of food spoilage and result in greater quantities of the product being sold.  

In addition to their use as decision-making instruments, LCAs are also used by companies to improve their public image – modern consumers look for “green” products and companies use LCAs to show their responsibility to the environment.

LCAs are increasingly being used in B2B communications. A good example of this is product market differentiation done on the basis of environmental effects. This is increasingly seen in the construction sector where the preparation of environmental effect declarations is a growing trend.

This material was published in Utilities magazine, August-September 2018.

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