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Life cycle analysis for recycling

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is an environmental tool used to assess products, services and activities. It
could be formally defined as "a systematic inventory and comprehensive assessment of the
environmental effects of two or more alternative activities involving a defined product in a defined
space and time including all steps and co-products in its life cycle"(Pedersen,1993 cited in Kiely,
1997,p 803). Different writers have different definitions for LCA. For instance, Ciambrone (1997)
views LCA as a systematic tool that can be used for assessing the impact a certain product or
service has on the environment. He goes on to suggest that if this tool is used alongside waste
management practices, it can result in the provision of a less polluting product or service. Also,
according to Mulder (2006, p. 206) "LCA is a tool that allows the environmental impact of a design or
product to be analysed". In the same vein, but more explicitly, the LCA of a product or a service
could be said to "involve looking towards the past, or upstream processes of a product or a service
(raw materials, manufacturing, transport etc) and looking to the future use and possible disposal
options, or downstream processes of the product (energy and materials consumed by the product in
use, re-use, recycling or disposal option for the product)" (Lewis et al, 2001, p. 42). McDougall et al
(2001) refers to it as an environmental management tool that takes into account all the operations
involved in providing a product or a service. Furthermore, the ISO 14040 standard defines an LCA
as "a compilation and evaluation of the inputs and outputs and the potential environmental impacts
of a product system through its life cycle" (SimaPro7, 2008, p 19).

The views of different researchers and writers may differ slightly but the concept is generally the
same. It can be gathered that an LCA basically tries to consider the environmental effect every stage
of the life cycle of a product/service has and relate that to its final function (Lewis, et al, 2001). This
is necessary so as to find ways to minimize these impacts. According to Ciambrone (1997)
understanding the total impact of a product means evaluating the total life cycle of it; from raw
materials and production all through to distribution, use and re-use or disposal.
Some writers refer to life cycle analysis as life cycle assessment. These titles are normally used
interchangeably but Kiely (1997) views Life Cycle Analysis as Life Cycle Assessment with the
assessment stage omitted. Others propose that terms like Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) and Life Cycle
Assessment should be used in place of LCA because it thought that they better reflect the stages of
the process (WRF, 2009). There are quite a few other terms that represent this concept, some of
which are; Ecobalance, Ecoprofile, Product Life Assessment, Cradle-to Grave analysis and Material
Flow Analysis (Kiely, 1997; WRF, 2009). The choice of terms used is entirely the prerogative of the
people conducting the study, however, for the purpose of this review life cycle analysis (LCA) will be
used to represent the concept in question.
Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) another tool that can be used in conjunction with LCA to measure the
environmental impacts of products/services and find ways to reduce them. LCT looks at the life cycle
of a product and finds ways to reduce the far-reaching effect it has on the environment. It basically is
a way of considering the products to bring about modifications that are environmentally beneficial
and hence, does not require the rigorous data analysis that LCAs do (RCS, 2005). Moreover, it is
pertinent to note that these tools help immensely in forming improved and sustainable systems;
ASCE (2004) even refers to them as a method for sustainability assessment.
As a consequence of the development of the LCA over the past two decades and its general
acceptance and vast use; some software programmes have been designed in recent years to aid the
inventory stage of LCAs. They are very useful for obtaining secondary data, among other functions.
Here are some of them and their functions;
1. Idemat Looks up environmental damage of materials
2. EcoScan Helps make a short environmental analysis
3. SimaPro Helps make a detailed environmental analysis
History of Life Cycle Analysis
LCA has developed greatly over the years. In the 1960's a few publications on the subject were
presented and published (Ciambrone, 1997). However, the first documented LCA was conducted in
1969 for the Coca Cola Company. This was to be the foundation of methods presently used for
LCAs. The analysis for the company was focused on beverage container choice (Kiely, 1997;
Ciambrone, 1997). Energy supply systems were the main focus in the 1970's, this showed that LCAs
could be used for services as well as products. Also, during this period, global modelling studies and
energy audits that tried to assess the resource cost and environmental implications of various
patterns of human behaviour were quite rampant. Unfortunately, the lack of necessary data at the
time among other limitations caused a decrease in the use of the technique. However, when solid
waste and landfill capacity limitations became a worldwide issue in the 1980's, LCA had to be looked
at again. The tool emerged as a vital one for environmental problems and became even more
popular in the 1990's.
For the past two decades, the focus on LCA has grown immensely and quite a lot of work has been
done for different purposes and goals using the technique. This is due to an increase of the general
public's, industries and government's environmental awareness (Kiely, 1997; Ciambrone, 1997;
WRF, 2009; SimaPro7, 2008). Below is a diagram showing some of the goals of LCAs.
International Standards Organisation (ISO)
The internationally agreed standard for LCA was developed by ISO. This was based on studies
conducted by the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). Through the
studies, ISO was able to develop and reach a consensus among its global membership on a series
of standards for LCA which are documented in four environmental management system standards
(ISO 14000). This series is called ISO 14040 and the initial one is stated below;