Life Cycle Assessment – definition & methodology

A life cycle assessment according to ISO 14040/14044 is an instrument of environmental and sustainability management. Its aim is the comprehensive evaluation of the environmental impact of products and services, in order to increase the product sustainability.

Life Cycle Assessment – in a nutshell:

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA or Life Cycle Analysis) is a method to calculate the environmental impact of a product over its entire life-cycle. In this context, the term 'product' also includes services.

Taking the entire product life-cycle into consideration – from resource extraction to production, use, and disposal – guarantees an integrated evaluation of all inputs and outputs, thus making sure negative environmental impacts aren't shifted to other life cycle phases of the product.

The methodology is defined in the ISO 14040/14044 standard. For the analysis of the environmental impact all materials, resources and the energy used should be included.

➠ Through an LCA you increase the sustainability of your products!

Life Cycle Assessment definition

Types of life cycle assessment:

In literature and practice, there are various forms of life-cycle analysis, differing in scope, objective and products considered:

  • Screening LCA: rough estimation and assessment of environmental impacts by considering the most relevant materials and resources using average data.
  • Product LCA: descriptive analysis of the environmental performance of an individual product over its entire life cycle.
  • Comparative LCA: comparison of different products or product variants. Different processes and production systems can also be compared.

All forms are subject to the same principles and methodologies, which are presented below.

Goals & Methodology

Goals of an LCA:

A Life cycle analysis of a product pursues various objectives:

  • Acquisition of environmental information & integration of ecological knowledge
  • Identification of optimization potentials of the environmental performance
  • Reduction of materials used & environmental impacts
  • Creation of sustainable products
  • Combining economic and environmental advantages

➠ This eco-efficiency makes real sustainability possible!

Setup of an LCA:

An LCA is carried out in accordance with the standards ISO 14040/14044 in 4 steps:

  • Definition of objectives, system boundaries and scopes: which products are analyzed and compared under which conditions?
  • Life Cycle Inventory: which material and energy flows occur during the life cycle of the product?
  • Impact assessment:  How are the results of the Life Cycle Inventory assessed with regard to their environmental impacts?
  • Interpretation: How are the results of the Life Cycle Inventory and impact assessment interpreted?
Life Cycle Assessment Phases

Life-cycle phases:

A holistic LCA considers the entire life cycle of a product (cradle-to-grave). This is roughly divided into the following 5 main phases or stages:

  • Raw material
  • Manufacture
  • Distribution
  • Consumer use
  • Disposal/recycling

So in addition to the production system, further upstream and downstream process steps are evaluated.

Life Cycle Assessment environmental impacts

What environmental impacts are considered?

In general, all relevant potential harmful effects on soil, air and water must be taken into account through the use of resources and materials on the one hand and the emission of pollutants on the other.

The ISO 14044 standard describes a large number of possible environmental impacts. The best known are:

  • Global warming potential / Carbon Footprint (GWP)
  • Acidification potential (AP)
  • Eutrophication potential (EP)
  • Human toxicity

Aggregation and valuation (LCIA) methods

A major challenge in a life cycle assessment is to summarise the various environmental impacts (e.g. greenhouse effect or eutrophication). There are different evaluation methods, which differ in the procedure, e.g. with regard to weighting.

Some methods only consider a selected environmental area, such as the cumulative energy demand or the carbon footprint. Other fully aggregating methods (such as the Eco-Indicator) combine various environmental impacts into a single key figure.

The best known assessment methods are:

  • CML2001
  • Cumulated energy demand
  • Eco-Indicator 99
  • Ecological footprint
  • Ecological scarcity method
  • Impact World+
  • Recipe 2016

The decisive factor for the selection of suitable impact categories and assessment methods should always be the product analyzed and the respective facts.

Data for life-cycle assessment:

A large part of the effort involved in preparing an LCA is the research process of suitable (LCA and inventory) data. For the production process, it is important to work with your own primary data. However, environment-related data, especially for upstream and downstream processes, are very difficult to collect. Therefore, secondary data are used for these cases:

  • LCI database: contains Life Cycle Inventory data of a product or component and the material, energy and emission flows contained therein.
  • LCA database: contains environmental data and methods for assessing the ecological impact of a product.

➠ Here you can find out more about frequently used (inventory) databases.

LCA examples

LCA – examples & use cases:

Our LCA experts and environmental engineers apply this method in various projects to increase the sustainability of products, production systems and entire companies. Learn more about exciting examples from our daily work: LCA & Carbon Footpints Case Studies

LCA & Carbon Footpints Case Studies

Free info webinar on sustainability management

Are you still at the beginning of searching for sustainable business solutions? We are looking forward to talking to you about efficient environmental management within your company and the creation of sustainable production through life cycle assessments.

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